Towards a Greater London – digital capability the first utility

Anthony Impey, Chief Executive, Optimity and member of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Anthony Impey, Chief Executive, Optimity and member of London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI)

It was March 2015 that Frixos Charalambous, CEO of Exan Coachworks made the decision to make his business digital. His car bodyshop business needed to embrace technology if it was going to rise to the challenges in its fiercely competitive market. To go digital, he needed fibre optic internet at his site in north London so he duly placed an order and waited. It became a very long wait- it was only last week that the connection was finally installed, after 10 months of toing and froing between his local authority, Transport for London and Openreach. Throughout this time, his business was being severely impacted by the grindingly slow speeds from their existing broadband service.

This is a familiar story for thousands of businesses across London. Examples abound of companies who struggle to operate with broadband that feels like it has gone back to the days of dial-up. In the past, the most widely reported instances of debilitating broadband have been from Tech City, where a multitude of companies have resorted to USB sticks and push-bike couriers to send data across the city rather than rely on London’s digital infrastructure.

What is now becoming apparent, is that slow broadband is hampering the competitiveness and stifling the success of business far beyond the tech sector. In every part of the economy, small and medium size businesses are going digital, just like Exan. The tech sector is no longer just a community in and around Old Street but now an essential business principle that permeates every industry. And while the success of this transformation has driven growth, it has placed tremendous pressure on the existing digital infrastructure. The most optimistic network investment plans could not have foreseen this level of demand. Essentially, we have built a motorway network that cannot cope with the sudden increase in traffic. And while the major network operators like BT and Virgin try to respond and build greater capacity, the volume of usage just keeps rising exponentially.

At a time that London’s average broadband speed ranks 26th out of 33 other European capital cities nearly a quarter of the speed of first place Bucharest according to a recent report from the House of Lords, the outlook is that it will continue to get worse.

The new mayor has an important role in reversing this trend. The policy from City Hall needs to rank broadband as an essential utility to London’s infrastructure, treated in the same way as water, electricity and gas. The mayor can do this by requiring property developers to incorporate ultra-fast internet connectivity into every new building, as recommended by London Chamber of Commerce and Industry in its recent mayoral manifesto ‘Towards a Greater London’. After all, a building would not be considered fit for occupation without running water or connected to the electricity grid, so why should broadband be any different.

London’s business community needs the new mayor to be passionate advocate of the digital economy, placing digital infrastructure at the heart of their strategy, because the tech sector is no longer the cluster of businesses around Silicon Roundabout, but something that permeates every part of the capital’s economy.

Anthony Impey, Chief Executive, Optimity, Member of  LCCI

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