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Matt Hancock is the UK's new digital minister, but what should his first priority be?

Tuesday, July 19th 2016 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

The UK got itself a new digital minister last Friday as Ed Vaizey was replaced in Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle.

Mr Vaizey, who had been in the role since 2010, announced his "vexit" on Twitter, saying he was “looking forward to supporting the government from the backbenches”.

He’s been replaced by West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock, who oversaw digital transformation within the government in his previous role as minister for the Cabinet Office.

Mr Hancock has already tweeted that the BDUK superfast broadband rollout is on track to reach 95% of UK premises by the end of next year.

He added: "We're determined no-one is left behind – so we'll legislate to give people legal right to fast broadband connection by 2020" – a reference to the Digital Economy Bill unveiled earlier this month.

He also praised his predecessor for what he has achieved in the role.

But what should Mr Hancock’s digital priorities be between now and the end of this parliament in 2020?

Independent investment

Mark Collins, director of strategy and public affairs at infrastructure provider CityFibre, said one of the new minister’s first tasks was to help stimulate competition in the broadband market.

“Investment into the UK’s digital infrastructure for businesses is absolutely crucial,” said Mr Collins.

“We know that the failings of doing so will be detrimental to the economy, and yet this is an entire corner of the market monopolised by one organisation. This isn’t a good place to be, for anyone.

“While the government can’t be blamed for this, the new digital minister has an opportunity to step in to rectify the situation.”

Mr Collins said “almost everyone” agrees that encouraging more independent investment in broadband networks would be good for the country.

“Encouraging a more open market needs to be Mr Hancock’s main priority as, without competition and investment, the UK’s digital market will never be able to thrive.

“Without the right foundations to build on, he’s going to have trouble achieving anything else meaningful.”

'Fibre tax'

James Blessing, chairman of the Internet Services Providers Association (ISPA), said: “We welcome Matt Hancock MP to his new position and urge him to ensure broadband remains a priority when the BDUK scheme concludes next year.

“Broadband is a proven driver of economic growth and government should look at ways to reduce the burden on those rolling out digital infrastructure, such as reforming wayleaves and the so-called fibre tax.

“ISPs continue to invest in the UK, but government needs to play its part by ensuring the internet industry remains a major part of the forthcoming industrial strategy and is not held back by excessive regulation, is encouraged to invest and innovate and can access talent and finance.”

A BT spokesperson: “The UK is the leading digital nation in the G20 by share of GDP and it needs to maintain and extend that lead.

“Network investment will be vital and that requires a supportive regulatory environment.

“We know there’s more to do and we’re determined to extend faster broadband to all and to deliver ultrafast broadband to the majority of the UK.

“We look forward to working with the new minister to achieve these goals.”

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