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UK promises world-class digital infrastructure and 'innovation-friendly' regulation in new digital strategy

The UK government has promised to build world-class digital infrastructure and provide for "innovation-friendly" regulation as a part of a broad new digital strategy it has published.01 Mar 2017

A raft of measures to improve digital skills among the public and workforce in the UK, including through new "business-led digital skills programmes", are also outlined in the digital strategy.

Expert in technology contracts Simon Colvin of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind, said: "The digital strategy focused on creating a solid platform for innovations in technology and the technology industry more generally. It is good to see that improved connectivity, including through 5G technologies, smart regulation, fintech – including open banking, investment and research in AI, and addressing the digital skills gap, are clear priorities. However, with the kick-off of Brexit negotiations likely later this month, we certainly expect the government to announce further plans to enhance the UK's position as a technology hub as the Brexit deal becomes clearer."

In its strategy, the government restated a number of existing policies and proposals. These included plans to adopt the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), open up access to government data and facilitate better data sharing across the public sector, as well as the implementation of a new universal service obligation for broadband by 2020. Previous plans to reform the Electronic Communications Code and make it easier for telecoms companies to access infrastructure owned by others to build their own networks were also referenced.

The government also reiterated its ambitions for nationwide '4G' connectivity, and said it could look to require mobile network operators to "increase coverage and reliability" as a condition of them obtaining the right to use radio spectrum in future auctions.

The government also highlighted the importance of 'full-fibre' broadband networks, and reaffirmed its commitment towards the development of '5G' connectivity. It said it would publish a new 5G strategy this spring, which it said would set out the government's "vision for the next generation of mobile connectivity, and the steps we will take to realise that vision".

A new 'Business Connectivity Forum' will also be set up to allow businesses, local authorities and telecoms companies to work together to "develop specific solutions to the issues faced by businesses in accessing fast, affordable, reliable broadband", the government announced.

Parts of the government's digital strategy also reflected aspects of its industrial strategy and government transformation strategy, both of which were published earlier this year. Those plans include agreeing so-called 'sector deals' with sections of industry to improve productivity,  and boosting the use of the government's digital identification scheme 'Verify' for accessing services online.

The government used its strategy to commit to "innovation-friendly" regulation. It said such an approach is "crucial to allowing university researchers and digital companies to develop, test and sell their ideas, goods and services".

It said: "We will work with the independent regulators to ensure that regulation across sectors is open to realising the benefits of new and disruptive digital innovations, while continuing to protect the public. Companies developing new technology will be able to get a fair hearing from government on any regulatory or competition issues that they feel are impeding their businesses."

The government also said it would look to ensure that intellectual property (IP) rules "keep up with technological change", and said it would carry out research into 3D printing technology and "how IP rights apply to 3D files and products", an issue previously examined by IP expert Cerys Wyn Davies of Pinsent Masons.

A new review into "how industry and government can create the conditions for the artificial intelligence (AI) industry to continue to thrive and grow in the UK" will also be carried out, the government said, as it confirmed plans trailed earlier this week. The AI review will "consider the core challenges such as skills and access to talent, access to data, and access to finance and investment", it said.

The government also announced new collaborations with a number of major businesses as part of its plans to boost digital skills in the UK.

The new 'Digital Skills Partnership' will look to coordinate existing skills programmes run by technology companies, local businesses, local government, charities and other organisations, and involving "sharing of knowledge and best practice", according to the new strategy. Ways to improve "the coherence of digital skills provision, for example by setting ambitions for increasing the level of certain types of training on offer and agreeing how it can be targeted where it is needed most" will also be explored, it said.

A number of businesses, including Lloyds Banking Group, Barclays, Google, BT and IBM, have announced expanded digital skills training initiatives to support the scheme.

Within its new strategy, the government also announced a target to shift a greater proportion of public bodies' spending towards SMEs through its Digital Marketplace platform. It said: "Our target is for the proportion of the total sales to SMEs in the Digital Marketplace to rise by 10% year-on-year reaching at least £750 million a year by 2020."

The government will also look to ensure that departments use "commodity hardware or cloud-based software instead of building something that is needlessly government specific", it said.

Further proposals to support innovation in financial technology (fintech), including the new open banking initiative, improve cybersecurity in the UK, and encourage the digitisation of the NHS were also announced in the strategy. Those digital health plans will, among other things, see the establishment of a 'sandbox' for trialling the use of new clinical apps in the NHS, it said.