Tech for the People

We spoke to some of Britain's tech worker co-ops to find out how Labour's policy of free, full-fibre broadband could help liberate tech from corporate giants and put it to social use.

The UK tech sector is one of the fastest growing in the world – employing 1.64 million people with a turnover of £170 billion a year. But it could be even more dynamic. The free broadband policy announced by Labour would help secure its growth, and particularly help those parts of the sector that are trying to maximise value to people as opposed to value for profit.

This “tech for good” sector, while currently dwarfed by the fintech and startups, is vital for helping prevent social exclusion and providing genuine innovation. Opportunities in the normal commercial sector are on the wane as the marketplace becomes crowded, while less commercially driven avenues remain under-explored.

I spoke to some members of the UK’s 40+ democratically-run technology companies to find out how they think fast, universal broadband could change the economy and society. These worker co-operatives are solving some of the most challenging problems with technology and working with many of the groups in society that could benefit most.

The economic opportunities provided by having free full-fibre broadband available to every home and business was obvious. Take, for example, what Szczepan from Animorph had to say. Animorph works out of Finsbury Park on augmented and virtual reality products – working with institutions like the Open University and the NHS.

Szczepan told me that “high speed and accessible bandwitdth is an essential enabler for the next-generation augmented and virtual reality … It will propel SMEs, like ourselves, to develop and deploy powerful solutions across sectors, spanning from training and real-time service tools to digital medicines and customer market products.”

Chris Croome from WebArchitects made a similar point. WebArchitects are one of the first ethical hosting companies in the UK and have been providing eco-friendly hosting services for over 20 years. According to Chris, “historically the cost of connecting to the internet has been significant and slow.”

“When we started in the 1990s,” he told me, “we had to phone from Sheffield to London with a 14.4kb/s modem.” This shouldn’t be the case any longer. “Free, universal, high speed broadband will make a huge difference for the self-employed and small businesses,” Croome said.

In a similar vein, Graham from MC3 Community co-op said that he was “pretty lucky in being in a relatively rural location with fairly decent part-fibre connection.” But upload speed is holding many businesses back, Graham explained, “what many people don’t think about so much is the upload speed, which in terms of enabling small digital businesses, could be a game-changer. Imagine what you could do with a gigabit symmetric service!”

Alongside the advantages of upload speed and reduced input costs, many of the co-ops I spoke to were alert to the social value of free, full-fibre broadband. “I just don’t get why people living in poverty, on borderline incomes, or in remote areas should be barred on the grounds of cost from information, training, education, communication and entertainment,” said Louise Scott from Media Co-op in Glasgow.

Media Co-op produces video and websites for charities, with a focus on under-represented and marginalised groups. “Internet access is a lifeline these days, not a luxury,” she added. With internet access essential for basics like accessing welfare provision, “it should be freely available to everyone – like a 999 number.”

Free full-fibre broadband can help with communication, as well, which has both social and economic benefits. Calum MacKervoy from Code-Operative (which is based in Newcastle but is distributed across the country) underscored how important broadband access is for freelance cooperation.

As a freelancers’ network with members based in different parts of the UK and in Europe, meeting in person is often not possible and we rely on the internet for all of our day-to-day communication,” Calum said. “This is a growing trend not only in the tech industry but across markets in an increasingly global world.”

With so much political engagement occurring online, these democratically-run technology companies were keen to point out that broadband was essential for ongoing political involvement. Sam Phillips from Small Axe, a communications agency specialising in political organising, picked up on this. “We Build Movements,” they say, and their aim is to ensure that there is something left in the form of human relationships and motivation after all the pay-per-click advertising. Sam told me:

“In the twenty-first century, access to the internet is access to political power. In an age where participation in democracy is so often digital, making sure everyone has access to fast and reliable internet is key to us. It’s vital people from all over the country are able to connect to the internet so they can exercise their democratic rights and build power to change the world as they see fit.”

Shaun Fensom works at Community Broadband Network Coop. For him, the key was collaboration in the building of a public, full-fibre broadband network. CBN has been helping excluded communities to gain access to fast broadband for many years. Their members were key players in some of the first internet service providers way before BT and Virgin turned the industry in a commodity marketplace. 

“The internet was built collaboratively – by the public sector and SMEs,” Shaun said. “The telecoms giants came along later.” A useful reminder at a time when the telecom giants seem like the only game in town. Echoing a point made by several people I spoke to, Shaun commented that “reliable internet access isn’t an option any more, it’s a necessity. And millions are effectively excluded – financially or because they live in the wrong place.” He went on:

“We can accelerate our digital economy and repair our public services, by turning again to the SMEs and public sector to build the new Internet. … The right way to do this is working collaboratively, using co-operatives as the mechanism for investing in and co-owning the infrastructure. Councils like Tameside, Blackpool and Manchester are doing just that, working with public bodies like the NHS, and sharing the infrastructure with the digital and tech SMEs that are creating the services for the future.”

I see these opportunities vividly in my work with Outlandish. Based in North London, we build campaign software, data management tools and websites for everything from financial services companies to trade unions and charities.

From where I sit, I see some huge missed opportunities for the economy and society when it comes to digital innovation and I hope Labour’s universal broadband policy is the first of many bold policies in the area.

Personally, I’d like to see a national streaming service fully buy out the rights to all digital media in the UK so that any film or song was available to everyone. The rights owners need not earn less but everyone could have what they want when they want it. But that might be a policy for another day. The point is: talk of universal, full-fibre broadband has opened up the conversation.

The perspectives I’ve captured above might not represent all of the tech sector. But they do capture a range of emerging focus areas in the tech economy: video production, website development, tech freelancer management, digital communications, data management, digital campaigning, virtual reality, web hosting, and broadband community provision. 

The words of these individuals and collectives show that universal full-fibre broadband could be a game-changer for the tech industry – on top of what we know about the productivity benefits and environmental advantages of free full-fibre broadband across the country. So it’s time for an end to the scare-mongering and the lazy self-interested swipes at Labour’s free broadband policy. It’s something we should be excited about. Let’s make it happen.