ourEconomy: Opinion

Get broadband done! How the UK can deliver a full fibre future

The UK led the world in the privatisation of public services. By bringing digital infrastructure into democratic ownership, it can lead once again.

Cat Hobbs
10 December 2019
Image: amika_san, CC BY-ND 2.0

Broadband is crucial 21st century public infrastructure, just like roads, the railway, water and energy networks. We developed water networks In the 19th century and the NHS in the 20th century, and quick access to the internet is something we all need today.

With the policy of nationalising broadband and providing every home and business in the country with free, full fibre connection, Labour isn’t just trying to win an election. They are shifting the debate. The party is showing that public ownership isn’t just about the old classics (rail, mail, water and so on). It’s about new stuff too.

The billionaire press has responded with cries of ‘broadband communism’ and ‘fantasy’ but the reality is, they’re freaked out. That’s because this policy is clearly about an agenda of the future, about the new public infrastructure that we need for the 21st century. And because they can’t escape the logic of public ownership, and the fact that broadband is indeed a public service.

It should belong to all of us, by right. It makes sense to plan its delivery instead of leaving it to the market, as Boris Johnson wants to do. And the full fibre network is a natural monopoly, and there’s no need to introduce an artificial market where it doesn’t belong.

Just like the NHS and education, brave Labour governments have made decisions in the past that everyone should have certain services for free, just by virtue of being a citizen or resident of this country.

Just like the Royal Mail and the bus network, it makes sense to plan the roll out of broadband as a whole – cross subsidising the network instead of allowing private companies to cherry pick the profitable bits of it. With Johnson, a mishmash of private companies would be given huge subsidies to cover rural areas.

Just like water and the railway, broadband is a natural monopoly and basic public infrastructure. Right now, the UK is languishing behind with just 8-10% full fibre coverage, while Japan and South Korea have 98% coverage. We need to catch up and build our network.

Privatisation has failed. It’s failed to deliver a green revolution, to provide the services people need at a price they can afford, and the results are all around us.

We’ve only got 10% renewable energy while Denmark leads the world with publicly owned wind power. Our rail fares cost up to five times more for a commute than comparable journeys for other European countries. Royal Mail staff go on strike while the publicly owned French post office works with staff to innovate and develop new services. 3000 bus routes have been cut since 2010, while in Switzerland every community can rely on a ‘clockface’ timetable. The privatised water companies in England leak away 20-25% of our water while in Paris, the publicly owned company L’Eau de Paris has cut leakage to 10%. And while our privatised water companies pour raw sewage onto our beaches and into our rivers, Scottish Water – which was never privatised – delivers high water quality and environmental protection.

When it comes to broadband, the failures of privatisation are evident too. Around half of low income households don’t have fast broadband at home. That means teenagers not getting their homework done, older people being cut off and rural businesses struggling to get off the ground. Delivering full fibre broadband will provide £59 billion in productivity gains to the economy.

Labour’s policy also herald the start of an exciting conversation about the internet, and how we can make it more democratic. If broadband is the tracks, the basic infrastructure, what about the trains – the internet itself? We desperately need more control of our public spaces online. Facebook works for advertisers right now, not for communities, and while its algorithms impact on our democracy, we have no say over the framework and rules governing a place where 2 billion people hang out, sometimes for hours a day. We also need control of our data, and regulation over how and in whose service it’s used. Tech companies are investing in driverless cars which would rely on smart cities, yet the cities themselves need to democratically decide how such technology might be implemented. Owning full fibre networks puts us in a better negotiating position.

British Broadband will be a new, publicly owned company to be proud of – following in the footsteps of many other public institutions, like the NHS (although it’s being privatised), the BBC, Channel 4, the Met Office, Ordnance Survey, the Land Registry and the Royal Mint. They are all in public ownership and all successful, many returning millions to the public purse each year.

We can make sure that British Broadband works for all of us by including citizens, workers and communities in its governance structures. We can also introduce new 21st century duties – a duty to decarbonise, to provide everyone with access to crucial services, to work closely with communities and to safeguard public land and assets.

We need to get broadband done! We can either do it the slow, expensive way advocated by Boris Johnson, distributing huge subsidies to the likes of Virgin along the way. Or we can do it the quick, efficient way, saving £12 billion, by rolling out broadband in the public sector and just getting on with it.

The UK led the world in privatising public services and infrastructure against all evidence and against public opinion. It would be wonderful if we could take this opportunity to show what public sector innovation and leadership looks like.

Read the full report by Common Wealth, ‘Full Fibre Futures: Democratic Ownership and the UK's Digital Infrastructure’ ­.

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