No big suprises: The government’s technology funding builds on from last year’s Budget
The government has revealed its Spring Budget with a solid nod towards technology based funding, with a commitment to “invest in cutting-edge technology and innovation”.
To this end the government will look to boost the development of 5G technologies, increase artificial intelligence (AI) development, fund research into quantum computing, and support the development around Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.
Chancellor Philip Hammond outlined plans for the government to fund the development of 5G technology to the tune of £16 million to accelerate the mobile broadband network in terms of both technology and standards.
The money will be used to creating a cutting-edge 5G facility for running trials on the network technology through partnerships between academic institutions, and the public and private sectors.
As part of the government’s 5G strategy it will work with Ofcom to assess the feasibility of accessing the 3.8-4.2GHz spectrum range, with the aim to prioritise public spectrum for use in the development of 5G, providing there are use cases that can show value for money in such efforts.
Notably, the 5G push will include the development of commercial options for improving coverage on roads and rail, no doubt paving the way for more Internet of Things (IoT) connections and facilitating the connectivity driverless car and other autonomous vehicles need.
Given the exchange of data on 5G networks and the continued growth of digital communications, the government noted there is a need for a robust backhaul network reliant on base stations attached to core fixed networks. To this end the government has committed £200 million to building out full-fibre local broadband networks.
The government will offer vouchers to businesses to encourage them to adopt full-fibre services, as well as open up public sector assets to enable fibre to be laid in existing ducts to reduce the cost of laying new cabling.
Funding for the creation of digital infrastructure will come from the National Productivity Investment Fund, which in the Autumn Statement 2016 committed £323 billion for spending on infrastructure and innovation initiatives over the next five years.
Some £760 million from that fund will be used to build out the next generation of mobile and broadband networks for both businesses and consumers.
The government also committed £270 million between 2017 and 2018 to push Britain’s work on so-called ‘disruptive’ technologies, such as robotics, AI, driverless cars and bio technology, with the aim to create systems that have “the potential to transform the UK economy”.
However, little attention was put onto how the government might address the negative impact of increasing automation in the UK economy, such as the loss of jobs or a lack of skilled workers to maintain complex robotic machines and smart software systems.
However, the government does have up to £40 million earmarked for spending by 2018-19 to work out the best approaches to retain and upskill people throughout their working lives, presumably in reaction to the affects automation can have on the current workforce, though this was not stated explicitly.
It is also worth noting that the sum allocated to funding such development is comparatively small compared to the large amounts major tech firms like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, amongst others, are ploughing into AI and autonomous technology research. But the commitment at least show the Tory government is aware of the potential the UK has to have strong position in the creation of cutting-edge technology.
With investment in technology initiatives comes the need for more digital and technical expertise and skills. To that end, the government is opening funds to the value of £90 million for 1,000 new PhD and fellowship positions, with 85 percent of them being in STEM subjects, and 40 percent aimed at strengthening collaborations between academic and the business worlds.
This ties in with the National Productivity Investment Fund plans to invest £250 million over the next four years to build a pipeline of high-skilled research talent to fuel the economy with innovation. Some £160 million of this fund will support new fellowships for early and mid-career researchers in areas that fit the government’s Industrial Strategy.
Somewhat ironically the National Productivity Investment Fund also has a £100 million fund to attract international talent into the UK, despite the proposed Brexit plans appearing to close of skilled people from coming to Britain from European Union nations. Time will tell if this fund can be brought to bear effectively once Article 50 to leave the EU is actioned by Prime Minister Theresa May and her government.
Overall, the funding commitment in the Spring Budget are not too surprising and follow on from some of the initiatives and investments the government committed to. The was little in reference to supporting the digitalisation of the public sector under the banner of the Government Digital Service, and while the NHS has funds earmarked for its service reform and support to relive pressure on local healthcare services, there was scant mention of finances for directly supporting the injection of digital technology into the healthcare service.
The money put aside for supporting the technology industry in the UK is on the whole rather small compared to how much cash both big tech firms and high-profile startups can generate. Yet, this is perhaps indicative of the rue health the UK’s technology sector is in and the that the industry needs more support with tackling regulations and standards over new technologies rather than an significant injection of funds.
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