Mikael Sandberg, Chairman, VX Fiber
What does the Northern Powerhouse mean to you?
The Northern Powerhouse is the UK government’s response to the demand from businesses, organisations and communities that there needs to be a little more focus on investment outside of the capital and beyond the South of England. It is made up of six of the UK’s northern cities – Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle.
Following the decline in traditional industries that these great cities were once synonymous with, such as ship building, coal mining, the steel works and cotton mills, each has adapted and become thriving business hubs. And, over the years, a number of high-profile brands have been born in the North and other well-established organisations have since moved their headquarters north of Watford!
Take Manchester for example – recently cited by Campaign as a viable alternative to London as a centre of creative excellence. This is quite simply because it has become a hub for media, digital and ecommerce companies. Industry stalwart WPP has also recently announced further investment into its Manchester office – opening a campus on its site Granada Studios by 2022. The BBC and ITV also both have a stake in the ground in media city in Salford. And, let’s not forget the companies – or ‘new economy brands’ – created from the digital revolution that are headquartered in and around Greater Manchester i.e. N Brown, Missguided, Boohoo, AO.com, Moneysupermarket, On The Beach and I Saw It First.
The Northern Powerhouse has clearly adapted to the Industrial Revolution 4.0, but more investment is needed to ensure these cities can remain innovative and future-proof them for the years to come.
One of the first steps Boris Johnson and his new cabinet has made is reopening the conversation around linking these major cities of the North more efficiently and effectively. Hence the recent pledge to fund a brand-new Northern Powerhouse rail link is now back on the agenda. It’s a great start, and most definitely needed, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
If you take a look at the new economy brands or companies that are coming out of the areas of the North that have access to full-fibre infrastructure, it is clear a real commitment is needed to achieving the 2033 roll-out of full-fibre connectivity to the whole of the UK, in both urban and rural areas alike. This will ensure that the whole of the UK beyond its major cities can benefit from a boost to the economy by supporting the ongoing digital – or Industrial 4.0 – revolution. This is not only crucial to retaining regional identities and cultures, but also to ensuring that the UK can compete at a global economic and technological level.
Five years have passed since the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was first coined. Has enough happened since then?
Although the term has been coined for a while, Boris Johnson’s recent pledge to fund a brand-new Northern Powerhouse rail link has brought this to attention again. While this isn’t necessarily new news, it will come as a relief to hear that these plans are back in place, shifting the business spotlight on to the North beyond the UK capital.
For the Northern Powerhouse to truly thrive though, its major towns and cities need to be connected – and not just by a high-speed rail line, as this is only a small part of the infrastructure needed to revitalise the Northern Powerhouse. It should be stressed that digital rejuvenation is just as important for UK regional regeneration beyond London. It is central to future-proofing the UK, bringing about endless positive economic (especially post-Brexit) and socio-economic benefits. We are living in a truly exciting time for tech, especially with the rollout of 5G and the IoT bringing about a new digital revolution. But for this to happen, it’s important to have the right infrastructure in place – and now is the time to not just start that conversation but to really get the ball rolling.
What must the government do to re-energise the Northern Powerhouse?
Having a full-fibre network is just as effective as a high-speed rail service in connecting the unconnected and boosting the economy – quite simply because it reduces the digital divide between locations. And, connecting Britain – ensuring every citizen has access to a reliable and fast internet speed, and accompanying bandwidth – should be a key priority for the UK government. Ubiquitous gigabit connectivity will further enable private companies and public sector organisations across all industries (from financial services and retail, to utilities and transport/automotive) to public sector organisations (i.e. healthcare, education) to continue to innovate with access to new and developing technologies.
Therefore, as Boris Johnson earlier claimed as part of his campaign for PM, installing full-fibre to achieve better connectivity across the UK should be just as big a priority as the Northern Powerhouse – which is why he should think about combining these two goals to make them both a reality.
What is the single main issue you would like to see dominate the Northern Powerhouse agenda?
Aside from the rail link, rolling out full-fibre should be the main issue to dominate the Northern Powerhouse agenda. It is a crucial step in helping to support business innovation and vital in future-proofing the economy. With 5G and the IoT set to completely transform the business landscapes, many developing countries are now choosing full-fibre networks because they have realised the importance of having excellent connectivity to boost their economic growth. By investing in this type of infrastructure, countries will position themselves as a key player in the global economy because they’ll not only be readily available 24/7 but will also sit at the forefront of cutting-edge technology.
Because of this, new employment opportunities will be rife – as the development of regional tech hubs both inside and outside major UK cities will enable citizens to capitalise upon their digital skills. This can not only help them to realise their potential, but also increase their earnings, and start-ups and SME businesses will be able to grow and thrive in a booming economy.
From a technological perspective, full-fibre is the key to unlocking innovation in today’s digital age. As 5G is set to dominate our networks, and as the number of IoT devices grows, we will need to keep these technologies continually evolving and innovating.
How is the appointment of metro mayors starting to help the initiative?
Metro mayors have the potential to play a fundamental role in helping to connect the various communities of the UK’s northern region. It’s important to collaborate with local businesses and citizens to help build a new future that is beneficial for all.
With this aim in mind, as we have done in cities in Sweden and South Africa for almost twenty years, VX Fiber works with local authorities, private investors, utilities, real estate and landowners to rollout full fibre networks. By collaborating with these different types of sector partners, we can gain valuable insight into the make-up of an individual area which enables us to provide a unique, bespoke service for the community. We consider it important to work with residents and businesses so that citizens can have a say over what is going to impact them and really take charge of their digital destiny.
VXFIBER’s open access model also means that competing service providers can share a common FTTP infrastructure operated by a neutral wholesale vendor. This business model ensures that customers are not locked into a monopoly and can enjoy exceptional services at a competitive price within a sustainable business ecosystem.
Therefore, if businesses and local governments can work together, we are much more likely to achieve our goals with greater effectiveness and efficiency – and what’s more, this integrated way of working is much more likely to see in a greater sense of enthusiasm from everyone all round!
How would the success of the Northern Powerhouse agenda benefit your business?
As the government is now putting its focus on the technological and economic development of the Northern Powerhouse as well as other key regions in the UK, we will hopefully be seeing full-fibre rollout steadily gaining traction. This will play a crucial role in helping the UK to work towards securing an innovative, digitally-driven future for the whole of the country.
From VX Fiber’s perspective, this focus could unlock the door to many new opportunities for us to help local governments and cities to work to building gigabit-capable connections and future-proofed communities across the towns and cities that make up the Northern Powerhouse. We’ve already seen success from our ongoing work in the UK, with Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the Grosvenor Estate in London, as well as across Europe – from Sweden to Germany – and South Africa. With our extensive experience and expertise, we see the Northern Powerhouse as an opportunity for us to continue our mission to create value in continually developing communities to help businesses and residents to gain their digital freedom.