Full fibre broadband is vital twenty-first century public infrastructure, just like roads, the railway, water, and energy networks. We developed water networks in the nineteenth century, and the NHS in the twentieth century – and quick access to the internet is something we all need today.
Before sewage networks and running water, most families lived in grimy, squalid conditions.
Before the creation of our NHS in 1948, families could only call the doctor if they could pay for the doctor.
Today, there’s a digital divide between families that can afford a good Wi-Fi service and happen to live in an area blessed with a strong connection, and families who can’t access good broadband, either because there’s no full fibre or superfast option ready to use or because they can’t afford to pay for it.
This is one reason why parents across the country will be breathing a collective sigh of relief this week with children going back to school.
Good working broadband might once have sounded trivial in comparison to clean water and the NHS. But locked down in our homes, it’s never been so obvious that the internet is a necessity, not a luxury.
With our public and semi-public spaces closed—no workplaces and no schools, but also no libraries or cafes—people are forced to rely on their own internet connection and equipment at home. Seven million people did not have home internet access in 2019, and around half of low income households don’t have fast broadband at home.
An April 2020 survey of over 7000 teachers by the Sutton Trust found that 12 percent of teachers in deprived schools thought that more than a third of their students would not have good enough internet access for home learning. The survey also found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to participate in online lessons.
47 percent of adults, when asked, said they would be willing to donate some or all of their unused data to low income families. But access to the internet should be a basic right for everyone, rather than a matter of charity.
Internet struggles make life harder for everyone – children trying to learn online, teenagers submitting their homework, families staying in touch on Zoom, older people keeping up with friends, businesses trying to stay afloat.
When the connection fails, faces freeze, sound cuts out, or documents refuse to upload, hours are lost and stress levels rise.
We need full fibre broadband now – this infrastructure will give us the high-speed, consistent online access we all need in our homes, and enable new technologies like ultra HD and virtual and augmented reality.
Yet currently, we’re lagging behind as a country. Full fibre coverage in the UK is only at 20 percent, compared to countries like South Korea and Japan which are at 98 percent or more. The government recognises that the infrastructure needs updating urgently.
Boris Johnson says he wants to improve internet speeds, but he wants to rely on multinational companies like Virgin to deliver it. They will cherry pick what they can offer to maximise profits for shareholders and demand huge government subsidies to cover rural areas. This is the slow, expensive way of rolling out full fibre broadband.
The government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review found that without government intervention, commercial markets would reach only 75 percent coverage, and would take 20 years to get there.
The government’s own research shows that if we leave the rollout to the market and involve several providers, it will cost £32 billion, whereas using just one infrastructure provider would cost £20 billion. So it’s £12 billion cheaper to deliver broadband to everyone with the public sector. This means making a plan, delivering it directly, and benefiting from economies of scale.
Research suggests full fibre will deliver £59 billion in productivity gains across the economy by making it easier to work from home and in rural areas.
Like energy and water, broadband is a utility. It’s basic public infrastructure that needs to be there for everyone. We wouldn’t expect to turn on the tap and just receive a sputter of water, and we don’t expect sewage to spew out into the street. Power cuts are thankfully a once in a blue moon affair – we know we can rely on electricity and gas to heat our homes and power our appliances. Yet dodgy Wi-Fi is a daily source of frustration for far too many of us.
Like the Royal Mail and the bus network, it makes sense to plan the rollout of broadband as a whole – cross subsidising the network instead of allowing private companies to cherry pick the profitable bits of it.
Like health and education, broadband is a vital service we should get access to, just by being a citizen or resident of this country.
Now would be a good time to plan for the public sector rollout of full fibre broadband across the country, as a public service.