Institutions of Innovation: Building Digital UK
'Institutions of Innovation' is a new series of monthly interviews with the institutions driving the UK’s innovation policy.
The series will begin to piece together the UK's evolving innovation landscape, setting out who the key actors are, what they do, where they sit and how industry can best engage with them, including through techUK.
This month's responses have been provided by Andrew Field, Head of Programme Delivery at Building Digital UK.
I see Building Digital UK's work involves “helping to bring fast and reliable broadband and mobile coverage to hard-to-reach places across the UK - transforming people’s lives.” What does this mean in practice?
Building Digital UK (BDUK) is responsible for delivery of two major government programmes - Project Gigabit, which focuses on rolling out gigabit-capable broadband to places that would otherwise be left behind, and the Shared Rural Network, a £1 billion deal with the four main Mobile Network Operators to extend 4G mobile coverage in rural areas.
Both programmes involve working hand-in-glove with the private sector to improve digital connectivity in remote and hard-to-reach places. For Project Gigabit we have contracts with broadband suppliers to enable them to extend their gigabit networks beyond their existing commercial plans, as well as a voucher scheme to kickstart local community projects. The Shared Rural Network will extend 4G coverage to 95% of the UK, enabling rural businesses and communities to thrive. It will improve mobile coverage for an extra 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads – giving the UK the world-class digital infrastructure it deserves.
Across the UK, 77% of homes and businesses are now able to access gigabit-capable broadband - this is up from just 6% in 2019, so a really impressive indicator of the very rapid progress made so far. By the end of 2025, the government is targeting 85% of the UK to have gigabit-capable connectivity, and then nationwide coverage by 2030.
What kind of relationship does Building Digital UK have with its closest institutional neighbours?
BDUK is an Executive Agency of DSIT. We work alongside the Digital Infrastructure policy team in DSIT on a wide range of issues including work to tackle regulatory or market barriers to deployment and policy for the very hard-to-reach premises which are beyond the scope of current programmes. We are finding out more about some of DSIT’s other partner bodies all the time, and look forward to exploring further opportunities with them. It’s a really dynamic and compelling department for us to be part of.
Beyond DSIT, what are the key departments that Building Digital UK works most closely with?
Not surprisingly, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a strong interest in BDUK’s delivery in rural areas and we work closely with them and some of their agencies such as Natural England. The Department for Transport is important for us in terms of the regime for access to highways and for streetworks issues, and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will continue to keep an overview of how access to digital infrastructure is supporting levelling-up across the country. The territorial offices including the Scotland Office, Wales Office and Northern Ireland Office also work with us to support delivery in the devolved nations.
More broadly, how does Building Digital UK work with external stakeholders, including industry, to drive innovation?
For Project Gigabit, BDUK sets the requirements in terms of coverage and specifications for speeds and other technical criteria, and then takes a ‘technology-neutral’ view in relation to proposals from suppliers. This means that any technology which can meet the technical requirements will be eligible for support, thereby encouraging suppliers to innovate to find the most cost-effective solutions. We are supporting the fixed wireless industry, for example by helping demonstrate how alternative technology solutions can deliver gigabit capability.
How can techUK’s 1000+ industry members best engage with Building Digital UK?
First, we would encourage broadband suppliers to ensure BDUK is aware of their existing coverage plans through the four-monthly Open Market Review process. We would also encourage suppliers to consider whether they meet the criteria for our procurements and if so, to consider bidding for delivery contracts. Suppliers can also work with communities to develop local community broadband projects under the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme (GBVS).
What is Building Digital UK's long-term vision for the UK’s innovation landscape? Are there any areas in which working with industry will be particularly crucial?
BDUK’s current focus is on ensuring that the UK has the digital infrastructure in place that it needs to enable businesses and individuals to take advantage of the digital economy of the future - driving forward the government’s focus on skills, jobs and growth. We will also continue to support innovative approaches to delivery of coverage wherever possible.
Finally, what is Building Digital UK's main priority over the next 12 months?
Our priority is to keep extending gigabit and mobile coverage in the hard-to-reach parts of the UK as quickly as possible. In particular, we now have a dozen regional and local contracts in place under Project Gigabit. We also have another couple of dozen procurements under way and these should all be going into contract over the coming months as well. Our focus will be on ensuring these contracts deliver the increases in gigabit coverage we need to see. We are also working with suppliers under the voucher scheme to improve connectivity in areas that are not covered by contracts.
In respect of the Shared Rural Network we have already seen 4G coverage levels increasing across the UK as the early impact of the programme took effect. Our focus continues to be on work with the Mobile Network Operators to upgrade existing sites and build new masts that will bring 4G to more parts of the UK that currently have poor, or no, coverage.
You can find out more about BDUK by watching their Chief Commercial Officer, Martyn Taylor, give a Keynote at Connected Britain asking “Where is the UK fibre market headed?” on Wednesday 20 September.
BDUK works closely with the Digital Connectivity Forum - a partner organisation of techUK which is the UK Government's leading advisory group on digital connectivity issues. BDUK regularly provides presentations and updates to the DCF's Executive Committee.
Click below to view our other Supercharging Innovation series:
techUK – Supercharging UK Tech and Innovation
The opportunities of innovation are endless. Automation, IoT, AI, Edge, Quantum, Drones and High Performance Computing all have the power to transform the UK. techUK members lead the development of these technologies. Together we are working with Government and other stakeholders to address tech innovation priorities and build an innovation ecosystem that will benefit people, society, economy and the planet - and supercharge the UK as a global leader in tech and innovation.
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