A table of the region's leading businesses came together with Topic UK and our hosts CityFibre and Diva Telecom as part of the launch of this year's Leeds Digital Festival to discuss: 'The importance of digital connectivity in Leeds.'
The debate brought together business leaders and key decision makers to foster the discussion around the needs and issues that currently surround the city's digital connectivity. It focused on the need for and the importance of a robust digital infrastructure and making this fit for purpose to support the city's continued growth and thriving digital economy.
The North now has one of the highest concentrations of digitally connected businesses outside of London and already contributes around £10bn a year in digital GVA to the UK economy. According to the Tech Nation Report 2017, in Leeds alone the digital industry contributes over £688m to the local economy.
One of the key questions of the day was how can we ensure that these businesses thrive and that the region remains an attractive location for inward investment and indeed start-ups? As our digital dependency grows, it is evident that a fit-for-purpose digital infrastructure is essential. Businesses are increasingly concerned about their internet connectivity but connectivity is no longer simply about internet access, it underpins the entire operational capability of a business.
In attendance at the debate was the founder of Leeds Digital Festival, Stuart Clarke, Blaine Craig from Diva Telecom, Martin Kemp, Marc Lough and Andy Nash from CityFibre, Simon Brereton and Dylan Roberts from Leeds City Council, Andrew Meyer from NHS Digital, Kane Fulton from Tech North, Andrew Devonald from Grant Thornton, Julian Wells from Whitecap Consulting Ltd, Dan Bell from Chadwick Lawrence, Rob McClements from CDi Yorkshire, Stuart Barker from Agenci, Amanda Lennon from innov8tiveminds and Sharon Jandu from Tech ATP. Chair for the event was Gary King from Tendo.
Marc Lough, City Development Manager at CityFibre introduced the debate outlining the need for reliable connectivity in the city. 'Digital infrastructure is absolutely vital. Leeds is seeing some huge investments in transport but digital infrastructure is just as critical to the success and future growth of the region.'
The overarching question of how important digital connectivity is in Leeds began the debate - and the response was unanimous. Leeds has seen an unrivalled growth in its digital economy and is now home to over 3,500 digital and tech companies. However, to continue this growth and to compete both on a national and international stage, Blaine Craig from Diva Telecom stated that 'good connectivity from a resilient digital infrastructure is absolutely essential'.
Stuart Clarke from Leeds Digital Festival explained that the 2 main issues that the Digital Festival aims to address is the digital skills shortage and connectivity. The digital sector in Leeds is unable to strive without a digital infrastructure that can support it.
Infrastructure is so often perceived as just referring to transport, which remains extremely high up on the Leeds City Region agenda. However, it is vital that digital infrastructure is given the same attention to help to support the overall economic growth plans for the city.
It was raised that Leeds is currently behind other cities, both nationally and internationally, in terms of infrastructure and connectivity due to a lack of investment. To begin resolving this, Amanda Lennon from innov8tiveminds indicated that a partnership approach was absolutely necessary and that we need to begin to understand the challenges that our current business model for digital infrastructure faces.
Andy Nash from CityFibre referred to CityFibre's flagship Gigabit City, York, which was contract backed by the local council. The network was initially deployed to the public sector estate and since then CityFibre has organically funded fibre-to-the-premises to both homes and businesses across the city. 'It is doable but it needs to be kick started through an initial investment from the local authority.'
From a public sector perspective, Simon Brereton from Leeds City Council commented that 'digital infrastructure and delivering all our services digitally is one of our priorities for the city but paying for that is a challenge.'
The discussion continued around central government's role in investing in the city's infrastructure. With transport infrastructure receiving huge amounts of government funding, it was agreed that more should be done to lobby for funding for digital infrastructure.
Sharon Jandu from Tech ATP spoke about her trade delegation to Karnataka, India which has a Smart City initiative whereby digitalisation and digital education is becoming the norm. 'If a city doesn't have excellent connectivity then it will look extremely unattractive from an inward investment perspective. So if we don't have that in place, why would you come to Leeds at all?'
Amanda Lennon agreed with this and gave the example of York who have won inward investment from companies in the US as a result of its digital infrastructure.
But Simon Barker from Agenci raised the question 'How do we educate people to effect change without undermining the perception that has been created?'
This turned the conversation to demand. Andrew Devonald from Grant Thornton stated that few businesses were raising digital connectivity as an issue and this was echoed by Simon Brereton. One potential reason for this is that businesses have not had an alternative connectivity option in the past and had to suffer with slow speeds as standard. As businesses become aware of issues surrounding digital infrastructure they are more likely to be more forthcoming when demanding a better service.
Another essential point raised was that the infrastructure in the city must be future-proofed as our digital dependencies continue to increase. Marc Lough expanded on this with 'Business demand for ultra-fast connectivity has grown at a huge rate over the last 5 years as new technologies and cloud systems are developed. A 10Mgbs connection is simply no longer good enough to cope with the fast-paced nature of business'It became clear that the current state of Leeds' digital infrastructure was due to lack of investment, therefore we can no longer rely on legacy infrastructure from outdated copper connections and we must look ahead and pre-empt what will be required in the future.
There is a collective need to educate the consumer on the kind of services that could be available to them, to drive the demand and in turn the investment.Simon Barker stated 'An improved connection can deliver so much more for the business than what they are currently getting.' However, this should not detract from the need for corporates, public sector and central government to be driving the agenda for improved digital connectivity forward.The infrastructure in the city centreseems to be an extremely big talking point and high up on many agendas but the discussion turned to the rest of the City Region.
Beyond the city centre, in towns and villages in which a large number of SME start-ups are based, even average connectivity isn't available. Blaine Craig raised an example of a community in North Leeds that came together to build their own network which allowed them to benefit from fibre-to-the-premises. 'It's a private sector model for wealthy communities without connectivity but there could be a possibility for other communities to do the same kind of shared project.'
So, what does success look like to the city in terms of digital connectivity? Marc Lough gave his thoughts on what success looks like for a city. 'On a business level, there is a need for healthy competition for services to provide choice for our business community. On a city level, every single school should have the ability to access high bandwidth internet services, every doctor's surgery should be able to operate a centralised or cloud based system for patient records enabling better service and the public should be able access their local government services from home.'
In summary it was plain to see that connectivity is paramount to the continued success of Leeds digital economy and the growth in the sector and the city as a whole. CityFibre have already started to improve the connectivity in the city centre with 117km of pure fibre already installed, and further expansion is demand led.