Improved connectivity is helping Belfast
Rob Orr, executive director, Virgin Media Business, on what winning the LFFN tender in Belfast will bring
In 2017, Belfast City Council launched the Belfast Agenda - a bold community plan focused on making the city a welcoming, safe and inclusive place for all, with a thriving economy that benefits every member of society.
Central to meeting these goals will be the continued development of Belfast's digital economy, which is vital to ensuring the city has the underlying tools it needs to thrive. And crucial to this will be ensuring that Belfast has the fastest and most efficient connectivity possible - the essential, yet often overlooked, component of digital infrastructure.
Thankfully, Belfast is in a strong position to capitalise on the next generation of connectivity. In 2018, the UK Government announced the £190m Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund, which aims to boost commercial investment across the whole of the UK. Belfast was one of 13 regions benefiting from the first wave of funding, enabling it to install an extensive fibre network that will unlock huge efficiencies and have a positive impact on residents' quality of life.
Belfast's strategic approach to boosting connectivity, including the roll-out of ultra-fast services, is having a positive impact on the local economy. Rootmetrics recently crowned Belfast the best city in the UK for mobile connectivity.
Belfast's digital technology sector contributes more than 5% GVA to the region's economy - the second highest proportion in the UK - and also creates well-paid jobs. Salary growth for digital jobs was 14.8% higher than the local average last year.
The roll-out of ultra-fast broadband services in Belfast has allowed small businesses to expand at a much quicker rate than previous years, energising the region's start-ups. As well as enabling small businesses to thrive, the future-proof digital infrastructure also acts as a draw for multinationals that increasingly view connectivity as a key factor when deciding office locations.
Global companies such as Baker & McKenzie, Fujitsu and Concentrix chose to base themselves in Belfast, in part because of the connectivity and skilled workforce that the city offers.
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If Belfast continues to invest in the digital infrastructure that underpins the region's knowledge economy, it could create more than 80,000 jobs and add more £3bn to the city's economy by 2030 - improving the lives of residents, as well as attracting talent for the future.
Beyond the economic benefits, better connectivity is already improving the lives of people here.
As part of its Smart Belfast programme, which brings together the city's universities, businesses, local government and citizens to collaborate, innovate and experiment using cutting-edge technologies and data science, the council has trialled a number of smart city initiatives aimed at improving quality of life.
Healthcare is another area where connectivity can play an important role in improving services and, ultimately, enhancing the health and well-being of residents. The social care crisis in the UK has led to an increase in 'bed blocking', where patients who are not in need of immediate attention are kept in hospital because they cannot be discharged elsewhere. This issue is particularly problematic in Northern Ireland, where pensioners are expected to outnumber children by as soon as 2028.
The introduction of connected technologies into the home would help to remove this risk. In the days following hospital discharge, sensors placed around a home could monitor a patient's heart rate, movement and even oxygen saturation. This allows doctors to offer better aftercare and keep track of patients from the home, freeing up valuable bed space.
It would also improve patient outcomes. Research shows that if patients stay in bed for long periods in hospital they lose mobility, fitness and muscle strength - making it harder to regain independence. There's also extensive evidence to suggest that being in familiar surroundings with support from loved ones, family and friends can rapidly boost recovery times.
The city of Belfast can be very proud of the steps it has taken to modernise its infrastructure and invest in the future of its citizens, visitors and business community. At Virgin Media Business, we're very proud to have been awarded the LFFN tender in Belfast. We'll be working closely with local authorities to further boost the city's connectivity including hospitals, schools, businesses and communal spaces.
With the right skills and expertise in place, Belfast will continue to be one of the happiest and most prosperous cities in the UK.