Labour’s broadband policy is staggeringly unambitious

Labour’s broadband policy is staggeringly unambitious

Full fibre network by 2030? That falls far short of what we need.

Norman Lewis


It was monotonously predictable that the reaction to the Labour Party’s announcement that it would provide ‘free’ broadband by nationalising BT Openreach would turn into a well-rehearsed Punch and Judy squabble about funding and regulation. Labour enters left and says the cost would be £20 billion. BT boss Philip Jansen weighs in, saying it would cost £100 billion. Boris Johnson as Mr Constable swaggers in from the right, thumping Corbyn with his truncheon and calling the plan ‘crackers’. And of course the media gleefully scream support or derision for either side, depending on their political persuasion.

But the question of the future of Britain’s broadband infrastructure should not be reduced to a puppet show. It is no laughing matter. This is a critical piece of infrastructure upon which the future of Britain depends.

Of course, to have a Labour government controlling this network would be an Orwellian nightmare, as Brendan O’Neill argued on spiked last week. Labour is right, however, to address the issue of Britain’s failing communications infrastructure. It really is a joke. The UK ranks 34th out of 207 countries for average broadband speeds. In September, the communications watchdog Ofcom said that full-fibre broadband has been made available to just eight per cent of homes and businesses. This means that 92 per cent of the UK does not have access to what is now regarded as the global broadband standard of 1-gigabit.

Britain lags behind countries like Romania and Madagascar. It is behind two-thirds of other EU countries. However, while Labour’s promise to roll out a full-fibre network by 2030 to provide ‘free’ broadband might appear radical, in truth it is both ridiculously complacent and staggeringly unambitious. If this were to be implemented by 2030, Britain would be where our competitors are today. Which raises the question of where they would be by 2030.

The point everyone seems to be overlooking is that the 1-gigabit fibre-broadband network is not a ‘nice-to-have’ part of life – it is an absolute and basic necessity. And Britain doesn’t have it. It is the foundation of tomorrow’s internet, the backbone upon which 21st-century society will depend. The global cable industry is now working towards making 10G (10-gigabit) available in the home. This will become a reality in the coming years, using the millions of miles of fibre-rich broadband networks that have been deployed across the world in recent decades – but which have bypassed most of the UK.

This should not be confused with the mobile industry’s 5G (meaning fifth-generation) – the ‘G’ in 10G means gigabit per second. That is, it would be a blazing fast internet speed. And the best thing about it? A 10G network does not require digging up the streets again and laying new cables. It can be deployed on the 1G fibre network. Trials on these new technologies are starting next year, with global rollout expected by 2021/22.

Just getting Britain to the point of parity with other advanced nations is the first challenge. Not getting there, or only partially getting there, or complacently believing we can do this at a luxurious pace – these are not viable choices. It would be grossly irresponsible, in fact.

We should know from the relatively short history of the internet that when internet speeds get to be 10 times faster than today’s fastest broadband networks, then new innovations and needs – social and economic – will unquestionably follow. Those of us who were in the industry when it went from dial-up internet access to early broadband experienced this kind of transformation firsthand. And it was remarkable. New companies were born, others were transformed. Companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, YouTube and Netflix emerged. Others, like Microsoft, Apple, Cisco and Oracle, were transformed into global behemoths. Behaviours changed, too. These companies transformed how we do business, communicate, find information and entertain ourselves in ways that few could have anticipated before this transition took place. The internet proved to be an infinitely open platform for innovation.

The speed and capacity of 10G would mean that the transformative and potential innovative power of the internet will be even greater. The future of work, health, transport, finance and security, let alone communications and entertainment, will be impacted in ways few can imagine. Ambitious programmes like self-driving cars and the much-hyped Internet of Things would become real possibilities (though it is still unclear if they will ever be realised in the way their designers envisage them today). The increased data-processing of today’s computers, next-generation cloud computing, and the realisation of the promises of artificial intelligence would all become a step closer, and would all have implications for productivity, security, military, privacy, biotechnology, education and energy policy. The pipes that carry this data will be the future’s lifeblood. Managing this vital network, and working out how to fund, advance and regulate it so that it does not inhibit its foundational promise as a platform for innovation, are serious but complex issues. This should absolutely be at the heart of publicly contested political visions of the future.

But instead we have the Punch and Judy puppet show. This expresses the exhaustion of Britain’s political class and its clear lack of ambition or belief in realising anything other than being average. But it also demonstrates the elite’s lack of awareness regarding the urgency of this challenge.

The issue is not ‘Should we nationalise?’. Nor is it whether broadband should be free. (It’s worth pointing out that it would not really be ‘free’ anyway, as it would, at least partially, be paid for from our taxes.) No, the real issue is that providing a ‘free’ service deprives the network provider of revenues. How such a network could be sustained, let alone developed, is anyone’s guess. I, for one, wouldn’t buy a second-hand car from Jeremy Corbyn, far less allow his shadow cabinet anywhere near running anything other than a school tuck-shop.

The last thing we need is a rehearsal of yesterday’s failed ideas or politics. There is a very real danger that nationalising Openreach could mean the return of the very problems that forced Ofcom to step in and legally separate the business from BT in the first place. We would be returning to the ‘you can have any phone you like, as long as its black’ era of consumer choice. It’s worth recalling that in 2017, Ofcom fined the privatised BT £42million – the largest penalty it has ever imposed – and ordered the company to pay £300million in compensation to rivals over delays in installing high-speed internet connections.

Other nationalised projects are also not encouraging. Australia attempted a state-run, top-down approach when it set up its National Broadband Network programme in 2006. The plan was to roll out full fibre to 93 per cent of all premises. Over the years, this was watered down to a ‘multi-technology mix’ using different technologies offering varying levels of speed and service to consumers. It has been hard, expensive and fraught with difficulty. Australia’s NBN is years late, massively over budget, and it offers speeds and technology that are a fraction of the original political intention. It has been branded one of the biggest infrastructure failures in its history.

It is clear that the scale of the challenge will require a mixture of state intervention, a lot of deregulation, private investment and a system of incentives that ensures competition and innovation. In the US, for example, private investment from cable-network companies has ensured that 1-gigabit services are now available across 80 per cent of the country, impressively up from just five percent in 2016. It can be done. The UK needs to learn from the successes of others. But to succeed, we will need ambition and real political courage.

If there is one element of truth in Boris Johnson’s attack on Labour’s proposal, it is the reality that existing EU regulations would potentially severely hamper any UK government’s attempt to take control of broadband. To develop a communications network that is 21st-century ready, we will need a government that has full control over all the levers of the state and the economy. That really is the bottom line. What we don’t need is a half-arsed unambitious gesture that maintains the status quo and the decades’ old in-built excuse of deflecting government accountability on to the EU bureaucracy. One can already hear Corbyn, if elected, pleading in five years time that he could not deliver ‘free’ broadband because Brussels stopped him.

It is a good thing that Labour has raised this question in the election. It goes to the very heart of the political and economic transformation the UK needs in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The UK needs an open public debate about this. The public should be taken more seriously instead of being treated as children who can be bought off with false promises of ‘free’ goodies. How to propel the UK into the new era – this is what we need to discuss.

Norman Lewis works on innovation networks and is a co-author of Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

Picture by: Getty.

No paywall. No subscriptions.
spiked is free for all.

Donate today to keep us fighting.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Quentin Vole

22nd November 2019 at 9:51 pm

“the 1-gigabit fibre-broadband network is not a ‘nice-to-have’ part of life – it is an absolute and basic necessity”

Really? What domestic applications ‘necessitate’ a 1Gb line speed? Streaming 100 HDTV channels simultaneously? Downloading a Linux distro in a few seconds rather than minutes? (It’s not as though many of us sit there watching the progress bar.)

Businesses (those bigger than a handful of employees) will probably need this sort of speed, and it’s available (FTTP) in most locations, but you’ll have to pay for installation. Those who need or want it will pay; those who don’t (99% of domestic users), won’t.

To be sure, there are too many UK locations which struggle to get a few Mb speeds, and this problem needs to be addressed. New connections should be installed using fibre. But wholesale replacement of copper (or aluminium 🙁 ) lines by fibre … at enormous cost and for what benefit?

In any case 5G will be capable of Gb speeds wirelessly, with no need for a gigantic infrastructure investment.

steve moxon

18th November 2019 at 8:00 pm

Well, it’s only refinement and reliability that’s needed to t’internet, isn’t it?
You know, a Skype that actually works as live conferencing instead of the nightmare actually it is.
And, OK, 3-D viewing of everything might be great … for some reason that largely escapes me.
I’m stumped for what else I would need ever faster connection speed.
But then I’m one of those who actually gave up on the internet in dial-up days, circa 2003, when paltry levels of info were available in crappy type, and connection was forever dropping out. Then, a year or two later I was finding email indispensable, and I was fed up with having to call in at the local library, so I got back on.
To think that was just 15 years ago. No laptops — too expensive — and the desktop had a bulky, weighty VGA monitor (flat screens were too expensive) , and even low energy light bulbs were an item (LEDs were just those tiny red and green flashy things on electronic kit, not room lights). So if tech advance is ever faster, then ten years hence may be unimaginable. And yet … tech booms have often been to an extent just that. A big explosion then a period of consolidation. How long have we been awaiting a robot to do simple household chores? All of that AI diagnostics and driverless cars are already ‘priced in’ to out future horizons, but many of us may be pushing up daisies before any either widespread or affordable realisation.
Tech after all is just means to end. Where’s the point in instantly downloadable film when almost all films are unwatchable naffness? [Same reason I don’t have a massive telly.]

James Knight

18th November 2019 at 4:49 pm

I am for an ambitions national strategy. But when people start suggesting it is a “human right”, it makes me wish there was one big off switch.

Leo Peace

18th November 2019 at 2:11 pm

Why is our infrastructure so wholly outdated? What are the mechanisms that have left us trailing pathetically behind the rest of the ‘developed’ world? This article provides no clear answer or policy. I genuinely cannot discern whether you support nationalisation or advocate continued private sector control. Surely, the project Corbyn has outlined is the simply the bare minimum needed to bring us up to date? As you said yourself, the new 10 gigabit network can implemented without major changes to the infrastructure that most countries already have in place. So is it not the case that we will still be 20/30 years behind when other countries update, because the old network will be repurposed. But, in order to make this transition, the old network must be comprehensive. Our’s is not. This article is nothing but an example of the kind of ‘Punch and Judy’ politics you claim to detest, replete with unsubstantiated invocations of Orwell typical of a contrarian schoolchild.

Lord Anubis

18th November 2019 at 5:32 pm

In all seriousness, An awful lot of it is historic.

The UK has a double disadvantage as far as modern infrastructure is concerned.

Firstly, we do have a big problem regarding being the first at everything (Mostly 😉 ). Being an “Early Adopter” makes it very difficult to subsequently upgrade to the latest tech. Both for economic and psychological reasons. (This applies to nations just as much as it does to individuals)

Secondly, we have a Political class that is dominated by people with a Classics/Legal educational background and who therefore have little enthusiasm, knowledge, or even interest in cutting edge technology.

Those of a certain age will remember Thatcher’s speech on the steps of No 10 after her first election victory in 1979.

(Not word for word) “I do not want to be remembered as the first Woman PM, I want to be remembered as the first PM with a Science degree!”

Now, I am disappointed at many of her subsequent policy decisions, but then PM =/= Dictator and she would have been hampered severely by her non-STEM senior cabinet members, so perhaps it wasn’t all her fault.

She was also unusual in that she had started out in life actually having a proper job (Industrial food chemist) before moving into Politics. Very few MP’s, let alone PM’s, have ever got their hands dirty before going into politics. Thatcher was a very rare exception.

But, nevertheless, her statement highlights something that has been an issue in the UK for the last 300 years. The industrial revolution didn’t happen “because” of the national government, it happened “despite” it. Parliament has always hampered technical progress in the UK (Red Flag Law anybody?) and will also take any opportunity to turn the clock back if it can.

Certainly, as far as any attempt by national government at trying to advance technology is concerned, they (Collectively) almost inevitably end up making a complete Horlicks of it! 🙁

antoni orgill

18th November 2019 at 7:02 pm

What is a contrarian childhood? Is it anything like a Rastafarian childhood? Could you explain how your childhood contributed to the intelligence you’ve used to traduce the article? And _ setting an example of substantiation _ could you explain the ‘Punch & Judy’ metaphor a bit better? Because, some of us are a bit slow on the uptake, you see …

Ug Ancient

18th November 2019 at 12:37 pm

While our political parties are buried in gaining power they will never be able to implement such plans.
We are the deplorables, they hate us and will never do anything like this unless it lines their pockets.
And then there is the issues seen in China as once the government gets involved they won’t be able to resist monitoring the data and manipulating things to stay in power.
For me like most, cost is important but so is reliability, I supposedly have 200mb/sec but because the router will not operate in terminal (modem) mode it is up and down like a donkey’s hind leg. I would be better off having a lower bandwidth that was constant than the current setup.
I think 5G will make WIFI and even fibre look like the poor relation.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to comment. Log in or Register now.