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The pandemic has shown free, public broadband isn’t just socialism; it’s common sense

“We should learn from the government’s failure to upgrade the system, and from our experience of life under lockdown. Both have shown free, public broadband isn’t just socialism, but – to paraphrase a Minister who knew all about technical innovation, Tony Benn – it’s also common sense.”

By Sam Browse, Steatham CLP

The BBC called it ‘broadband communism’, Boris Johnson called it a ‘crackpot’ plan, and Chris Leslie – a former Labour Shadow Chancellor turned Change UK candidate – joked ‘why not throw in free Sky TV? Free iPhones?’ 

But things have changed since Labour made its promise to deliver free, full-fibre broadband in December 2019.  As the most serious pandemic in recent history forces us into our homes and even further online, the pledge is less a visionary statement about what our digital infrastructure should look like, and more a basic precondition for enabling everyone to live, learn and work during the public health crisis.

Fast forward a year from the general election, and our increased reliance on broadband access under lockdown has amplified concern for the “digital divide”. After mocking Labour’s 2019 manifesto commitment, journalists and politicians – rightly, if belatedly –  quote with shock the ONS figure that 51% of households with an income of £6-10k are without access to the web.

Recently, Gavin Williamson faced a chorus of criticism for rejecting an offer from BT of free vouchers for children who are without an internet connection during the public health crisis. In their response, the Department for Education claimed that the 10Mbps connection speeds on offer were too slow to stream teaching materials, such as videos.

It’s obviously a risible argument – any connection is better than no connection – but it’s also a travesty that we’re relying on private corporations to supply sub-standard broadband speeds out of the “kindness” of their hearts. As Clement Attlee said, ‘charity is a cold, grey, loveless thing’.   

As more of our lives move online and everything from education to public service provision is supplied through the medium of a broadband connection, we shouldn’t have to rely on the meagre generosity of private internet providers to guarantee what should be a basic right of access.

A 40% increase in traffic each year also means we need to upgrade the system – the 2018 National infrastructure Assessment estimates that we’ll reach capacity for the existing part-copper, part-fibre network between 2030 and 2040.     

The Government is relying on the private sector to replace 80% of our superfast 30Mbps network with full-fibre gigabyte (1000Mbps) cables, while the other 20% – comprising hard to reach or remote areas – will be subsidised by the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS). Ministers had aspired to provide full fibre coverage by 2025.

Their approach isn’t working. Late last year, after a failure to reach key milestones, the target was revised downward to 85% coverage. DCMS has since neglected to publish any roadmap for meeting the new deadline, and there are no plans – or even target dates – for how and when the department will achieve 100% coverage after 2025. Currently, only 14% of the network is full-fibre – one of the lowest rates of coverage in Europe. There’s a good chance that the people who most need to be connected – people in isolated rural communities – will be completely overlooked.   

As a recent Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report put it:

It is unacceptable that, once again, the Department has set a nationwide target for coverage (now revised from 100% to 85% by 2025), yet it has not published a realistic strategy for rolling it out, and has limited control over the levers necessary to achieve it.

PAC’s criticism of Ministers’ ‘limited control’ over the rollout and the failure to meet the deadline demolish one of the key reasons for adopting the Government’s market-led approach to developing digital infrastructure. In a 2018 report commissioned by DCMS on the costs and relative merits of different ways of upgrading the system, the authors argued that a market-driven approach was the only way to meet the 2025 target. That claim has proven demonstrably false.   

And that’s why Labour’s 2019 pledge not only to provide free access to broadband, but to nationalise BT Openreach to develop full-fibre capacity was right. The private sector rollout is failing to deliver the network we need to take us into the next decade. If it can’t, the public sector must.

Rather than putting important decisions about key infrastructure in the hands of private companies, we need a publicly owned broadband network which is planned and upgraded on the basis of social need, not private profits; and rather than relying on the charity of corporations, access to that network should be a right, not reserved only for those that can afford it.

We should learn from the government’s failure to upgrade the system, and from our experience of life under lockdown. Both have shown that free, public broadband isn’t just socialism, but – to paraphrase a Minister who knew all about technical innovation, Tony Benn – it’s also common sense.

Sam Browse is an activist with the Labour Assembly Against Austerity, Arise Festival, and a regular contributor to Labour Outlook.     

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