Improved rural internet connectivity to unlock £8.8bn for British manufacturers

Posted on 23 Nov 2023 by The Manufacturer

New research from Cebr for Virgin Media O2 finds that improved rural connectivity could increase turnover for rural manufacturing businesses by over 7%, adding an extra £8.8bn to the UK economy.   

The analysis, published for the first time, examines the role improved connectivity could play in supporting economic growth and transforming rural industries.

Many factories are located away from cities and urban areas, with nearly half of manufacturing jobs located in rural areas. Recent output data shows the sector has been struggling due to the UK’s persistent productivity challenge, with the majority of manufacturers saying they expect economic conditions in the UK to either significantly or moderately deteriorate.

Technology has the power to help address some of the challenges faced by the UK manufacturing sector, for example, enabling greater automation to reduce human error and machine failure, and wearable technology that improves safety and effectiveness. Many of these new tools require high-quality connectivity, something that’s historically not been as available in rural areas.

Boosting the UK manufacturing sector 

Virgin Media O2’s ‘The Great Rural Revival Report’, which is based on economic modelling from Cebr, finds improved rural connectivity could boost the UK economy by £65.1 billion and increase employment by 6.8%. Of the four major economic sectors analysed for their potential to benefit from improved rural connectivity, manufacturing could expect the greatest rise in turnover and highest relative rise in employment.

Around one in six rural manufacturing business decision makers surveyed as part of the report said they would make greater use of technologies such as remote stock checking / inventory management and fleet management technology. For manufacturers to make the best use of these technologies, they must be underpinned by connectivity that allows teams to access inventory and fleet management data in real-time, so they can act on these insights in the moment and optimise their operations.

Empowering UK manufacturers with better connectivity  

Virgin Media O2’s work with British Sugar is an example of how manufacturers can use connectivity to boost efficiency and productivity. For almost two years, British Sugar has benefitted from the UK’s first multi-site 4G (and 5G ready) private network, spanning Norfolk, Suffolk and Nottinghamshire – a total operational area of 2.17km2.

This has supported the installation of multiple IoT (Internet of Things) devices and the development of several ‘factory of the future’ use cases. These include optimising the production process, introducing AI to the factory to monitor operations in real time and predict downtime in advance, and enabling the use of cutting-edge robotics to streamline production even further.

Virgin Media O2’s commitment to rural connectivity

Virgin Media O2 remains committed to investing to boost connectivity in rural communities and tackling signal not-spots. As part of the UK Government’s Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme, earlier this year the company announced it had further expanded its reliable 4G network to an additional 50 sites and secured planning consent for work at a further 100 sites.

While SRN upgrades continue to be delivered at pace, Virgin Media O2 is calling on policy makers, planning authorities and landlords to remove obstacles and ensure rural communities fulfil their potential. Specifically, the provider wants rules in place making it faster and easier to provide the infrastructure needed to deliver vital connectivity improvements. 

Jeanie York, Chief Technology Officer at Virgin Media O2 said “The manufacturing industry is key to the success of the UK economy,and our Great Rural Revival report demonstrates that improved connectivity can unlock an additional £8.8 billion of further growth for rural manufacturing, as well as increasing employment by almost 8%.

“The last decade has seen fixed and mobile networks rolled out to new corners of the UK and we are committed to continuing this rollout. By working closely with industry partners, the UK Government, planning authorities and landowners, we can deliver the essential network upgrades that will enable rural manufacturers to adopt new technologies and continue to thrive.”

Dr. Nandini Chakrovorti, Associate Director of Digital Engineering at The Manufacturing Technology Centre, said, “In a world of reduced resources, manufacturers are under increasing pressure to optimise their processes to extract the maximum value at all times whilst minimising their impact on the environment. Technologies such as AI, robotics and digital twins all significantly contribute to this endeavour. But connectivity is key to maximising their impact in real-time, so that manufacturers can increase their productivity and global competitiveness in a sustainable way.”

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