Digital potential for Scotland

United Kingdom

SFT (the Scottish Futures Trust) have published (here) a report entitled “Scotland’s digital potential with enhanced 4G and 5G capability”, prepared for them by Deloitte LLP.

This is hot on the heels of the publication of the Scottish Government’s 5G strategy (available here and our associated Law-Now here), suggesting a clear direction of travel and underlining the amount of thought and attention which such matters are now getting at governmental level.

The report was commissioned to assess the potential economic impact of enhanced digital capability in Scotland, building on a 2015 study and enhancing the understanding of the future impact of such technologies. A number of different scenarios are set out.

Superfast fixed broadband is now available to 92% of Scottish households and 78% of the landmass receives a 4G signal from at least one mobile operator. However, reliability and quality of service remains patchy. Although this can, at least in part, be blamed on geography there is no doubt that it creates a digital divide which will increasingly impact on vital matters such as healthcare, transport, education, agriculture and energy / natural resources.

5G – the next generation of mobile technology – promises to offer greater reliability, faster speeds, and higher capacity. It should permit ‘network slicing’, giving multiple capabilities simultaneously across sectors; for instance remote monitoring of at-home patient health, autonomous tractors, and machine learning). 5G also offers opportunities to provide an alternative solution to fixed broadband in locations where it may be difficult to install fixed infrastructure.

This level of connectivity would no doubt be welcomed by all but it would in particular be of immense benefit to rural communities.

The report sets out different scenarios of how digitisation might evolve, ranging from ‘base case’ through ‘evolution’ to ‘revolution’. An example is of people accessing public services online; in 2035 this could range from 55% (base case) to 70% (evolution) to 90% (revolution).

At its most optimistic, the report suggests that the development of 4G and 5G capability “as part of an advanced digital ecosystem” would increase the GDP of Scotland by up to £17 billion by 2035. The more modest ‘evolution’ scenario produces a figure of around £6.5 billion within the same timeframe. Proportionately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the impacts would be significantly higher for remote and rural areas.

Increased connectivity is expected to deliver positive social impacts – wider access to opportunities and services, greater social inclusion, and more efficient delivery of essential public services. The necessary training / user support would of course need to be made available and there would undoubtedly continue to be a need for ‘hands-on’ public services in certain cases to avoid social isolation / marginalisation of certain members of society.

It may also drive greater efficiency and permit the use of smarter energy grids, assisting with the promotion of greener technologies.

The report notes that that the necessary improvements to infrastructure will require to be made in order for any of these benefits to be realised. Inevitably funding and access to the necessary skills and experience will all be issues to be resolved. That aside, there are clear opportunities for multiple sectors to partner, sharing assets, knowledge and experience for the benefit of all.