We all know that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the UK’s woefully inadequate digital infrastructure. Just 20 percent of the country is covered by a full fibre broadband connection.
With the pandemic shifting huge chunks of our economy, our public services and our social lives online, this has heightened pre-existing inequalities. It’s forced children to try to access lessons via their parents’ mobile phone data when schools have been closed. It’s hampered those working from home. And it’s made it harder for people to connect with loved ones across the country—and across the world—after a year of on-again, off-again lockdowns.
While there are other countries—like South Korea and Japan—that have rolled out near universal full fibre broadband, the UK is not alone in its creaking infrastructure. The USA has suffered from years of under-investment in broadband, too, with more than a third of rural Americans having internet connections at below minimally acceptable speeds.
But this week, the Biden administration has pledged to tackle this, promising a $100 billion package of investment to deliver high-speed internet to all Americans by 2029. The scale of such a project is exactly what is needed to bring an economy and society properly into the twenty-first century.
Crucially, Biden’s approach is one which understands that what’s been holding back the development of effective internet infrastructure hasn’t only been a lack of investment. Rather, it is the confluence of under-investment and privatisation. That’s why Biden’s programme is eschewing the tech giants and the big telecommunications companies to roll this out. He’s choosing to instead deliver this investment through providers owned by local governments, non-profits and cooperatives.
Such an approach recognises that broadband—like electricity, water, and public transport—is a vital public service, which is best delivered in public hands, democratically accountable, and managed in the interests of the public, not the shareholders of private companies. It is a public approach which we need in the UK too.
Our government’s own estimates suggest that it would cost £32 billion to roll out full fibre broadband across the whole of the UK if it’s left to a hotchpotch of private companies competing to deliver it in a marketplace. By contrast, those same estimates suggest that a single provider could deliver it for £20 billion, meaning a publicly owned delivery of full-fibre broadband’s rollout would save £12 billion.
The savings here are astronomical. But this isn’t solely an argument about money. It’s also an argument about efficacy. Throughout our public services, we’ve seen time and time again that when private companies are involved they fail to deliver on crucial infrastructure.
Think about the private water companies that allow three billion litres of water to run down the drain every single day because they’ve prioritised shareholder dividends over fixing leaks in the system. Think about the private bus companies that have lined their own pockets rather than investing in green, electric buses. Think about how companies like Serco and Sitel were tasked with setting up test and trace infrastructure which is in chaos a year after it was established.
Tackling the UK’s woefully inadequate broadband is far too important to be left to private providers. It has to be delivered by a democratic, accountable, and well-resourced publicly owned British broadband company.
This isn’t only necessary. It’s also demonstrably popular. Polling from the 2019 General Election found that roughly as many people supported public ownership of broadband infrastructure delivery as opposed it. Since, public opinion appears to be travelling in only one direction. Now, a poll commissioned by the Communication Workers’ Union has found that 69 percent of voters in Hartlepool—a quintessentially ‘Red Wall’ area—are behind the idea of free broadband being delivered for all by 2030.
This is despite the media and the Tories cynically attempting to portray the perfectly reasonable demand in Labour’s 2019 General Election manifesto of free broadband rolled out through a publicly owned provider as ‘broadband communism’. Undeterred, a significant proportion of the population are on board.
In the 2020 Labour leadership election, Keir Starmer committed the party to rolling out full-fibre broadband for all through a publicly owned broadband infrastructure provider. With the country now much more clearly understanding the importance of this infrastructure, with public opinion becoming more supportive, and with the moderate wing of the US Democratic Party recognising the need for publicly provided broadband, now is the time to make the case for it here in the UK.