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Why Free Public Broadband Was a Good Idea

The pandemic has demonstrated how fundamental the internet is to our lives, but private companies continue to rip us off while providing poor service – it's time to think again about free public broadband, argues John McDonnell.

Most of us will have relied on the internet during lockdown. Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime have kept us connected to friends, or given us a chance to take part in community meetings and discussions. For homeschooling and for students in higher education it has been an absolutely essential tool.   

Well, at least for those of us with a stable internet connection. Almost 1 in 10 households have no access to a home internet connection, and 36% of people have no mobile broadband connection. The closure of public libraries and other WiFi hotspots has made life even harder for some during lockdown, while others have found their internet interrupted by major outages at a time when they need it most: Virgin Media’s broadband crashed for millions of customers in late April.

Whatever group you’re in, lockdown has confirmed that access to the internet is no longer an optional nice-to-have, but an essential of modern life.

Common Wealth’s new report, Democratic Digital Infrastructure, gives even more ammunition to those of us who want to see fast, reliable broadband rolled out as quickly as possible – without pouring subsidies into private shareholders’ pockets.

Full-fibre broadband is the gold standard for internet access. It’s robust and reliable, and it guarantees extremely quick download and upload times. Yet, as Common Wealth points out, the United Kingdom performs poorly in international comparisons. Around 11% of UK homes and businesses have access to a full-fibre network. Japan and South Korea have close to 100% full-fibre coverage.

That’s how far the UK has come based on a private model, where we leave it to companies to compete with each other to improve the quality of broadband. That leads to over-build in profitable areas and significant under-build in areas – like rural and remote communities – where profit is harder to make. If we’d left postal deliveries to the same logic, swathes of rural Britain might never have had a daily mail delivery.

The Conservatives promised last year ‘gigabit-capable’ broadband across the country – a standard that falls short of full-fibre – using the same failed model. They said they’d spend £5 billion on the hardest-to-reach areas but all the suggestions are that this will be money paid out to companies like Virgin to do the job. 

A new model is needed, and Common Wealth lays out a detailed case for public broadband as the answer in the UK and elsewhere. It’s not just that public construction of broadband infrastructure ends the leaking of money to shareholders and CEOs. Public broadband infrastructure is cheaper: a government-commissioned study finding that using a single monopoly provider to build the network would cost £12 billion less in the UK than a competitive approach with private companies.

It’s been the government in the past that has taken the lead to establish the most important infrastructure that has to stretch across the country, from universal post services to roads. In the nineteenth century, as Professor David Hall points out, it was the Conservative government of Disraeli that carried out the nationalisation of the telegraph system. 

Governments can borrow cheaply, coordinate across departments, subsidise one part of the country with another, and secure economies of scale in a way that the private sector simply can’t. Some things in life are too important to be left to the market – and that goes for broadband services as well as infrastructure. You now need the internet to apply for jobs, navigate public services, and contact friends. 

Full-fibre broadband is a good candidate to be a ‘universal basic service’: a service provided for free, paid for out of general taxation, like health, education or the road network. Full-fibre requires a significant initial upfront capital investment but then has low running costs, partly because fibre optic cables are both robust and cheap to replace. There is therefore considerable attraction in a public broadband model that involves society borrowing to invest in infrastructure, while paying for running costs through taxation – a policy that attracted broad public support after Labour announced it last year.

The policy was denounced by some as “broadband communism”. Others questioned how “pressing” broadband was as an issue. But lockdown has confirmed that broadband is a “proper public utility”, which “people need-to-have.”

Investing in full-fibre broadband makes sense as we come out of lockdown too. Full-fibre broadband has been shown to boost productivity. Nationwide full-fibre could bring some 500,000 people back into the workforce, and encourage greater working from home, thereby reducing carbon emissions. It could support the delivery of our public services. Common Wealth’s creative thinking also highlights how full-fibre broadband could be accompanied by other necessary innovation in digital policy, such as public cloud infrastructure and a British Digital Cooperative.

After Covid-19, there is agreement – at least in principle – that we cannot cut our way out of the recession, or return to the pre-Covid ‘normal’. We need new public projects that build on the nascent solidarity that this crisis has brought it. Public broadband could be just one of those projects: and a project that would be shovel-ready and a source of jobs across the country. 

We now urgently need a movement to put pressure on the government to adopt them.