The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has meant that the last year has been a very challenging time for all of us as we adapt personally and professionally to working from home - while juggling home-schooling and the lack of social interaction.
The pandemic has also fundamentally changed the way we use technology, forcing businesses to fast-track the development of their online presence in order to survive. This has helped to keep the economy moving despite tremendous challenges.
I am proud to work for a company that is continuing to work hard to keep Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK up and running. As a critical enabler and investor in Northern Ireland, BT Group has generated £655 million total GVA impact locally and we support more than 7,200 jobs here.
BT is also at the forefront of driving technology change and securing the UK’s digital infrastructure, investing £632m in innovation in the last year.
As connectivity is more important than ever before, BT Group’s investment in broadband and mobile infrastructure has been key to connecting businesses across Northern Ireland and with the rest of the world. Northern Ireland is the most digitally connected region in the UK, with almost 60% of premises already connected to Openreach’s gigabit capable full fibre broadband. When combined with EE’s extensive 5G mobile network, this digital infrastructure will help drive future economic growth. In the past year alone, BT has been at the forefront of helping to enable the UK economy to function and keep people digitally connected. I’m immensely proud that we have also provided access to free Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity for children and young people, including those in rural settings, who may not have had access to digital technology. This has enabled thousands of people to work from home, whilst juggling the challenge of online schooling.
And as working from home continues to become our ‘new normal,’ and businesses need to become digital in order to succeed – they also need support to build their digital skills. Northern Ireland faces a digital skills gap. The rapid pace of change is leaving people behind – as many as 11.3m UK adults and 10% of the UK workforce lack basic digital skills. This digital skills gap is costing the UK economy an estimated £63bn a year.
At BT, I’m proud to say that we are supporting people by giving them access to the best technology and training through our Skills for Tomorrow programme. These free sessions are part of a major new programme, temporarily being moved online, designed to empower 10 million people across the UK by giving them the skills they need to flourish for the digital future. We have collaborated with leading digital skills organisations to collate the best courses and information, in one easy to navigate place www.bt.com/skillsfortomorrow
BT has also been at the centre of introducing a new action recovery plan for the 124,000 small businesses across Northern Ireland to get them better positioned for recovery and growth following the pandemic.
Our Small Business Support Scheme is now offering an unprecedented package. This includes a commitment to pay our 4,500 small business suppliers within 30 days of being invoiced, helping firms fund the cost of ultrafast business connections, as well as access to free resources such as business mentoring, digital skills, marketing tools and mental health support. Last month, we also introduced free one-to-one expert coaching sessions for small businesses here.
Looking to the future, BT has and continues to support customers through these challenges, continuing to adapt to their needs in the ever-changing world around us. Importantly, BT remains committed to our ongoing investments in Northern Ireland, which remains a strategically important region for us, helping to sustain jobs and support the local economy.