Free full-fibre broadband is an eye-catching election pledge, but is it a sensible use of government resources?
The internet now forms a vital part of this country’s most important infrastructure and is central to almost everything we do, so much so that it is a target for cyber-warfare units of hostile foreign states.
Such is the level of cyberattacks that the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, said in September: “I feel I am now at war, but it’s not a war in the way we would have defined it in the past. And that is because Great Power competition and the battle of ideas with non-state actors is threatening us on a daily basis... Information is going to be at the core of so much that we do. Future warfare is going to be very much information-centric.”
Given this level of importance of the internet to our economy and modern-day life, it is not entirely a surprise that Labour, given the nationalising instincts of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, has announced its plans to give free full-fibre broadband to every home and business in the UK by 2030.
The idea – which Labour costs at £20 billion, the Tories say would hit £83 billion over ten years and BT estimates would be closer to £100 billion – would see the renationalisation of part of BT to create a new body, British Broadband, funded by new taxes on Google, Apple and other similar firms.
With Corbyn as Prime Minister, the virtual ‘information highway’ would be provided in the same way as the real highways we drive upon – by the state – along with other newly nationalised services like rail and water.
However, the key question is whether spending all this money on buying up private companies is a sensible, practical use of resources.
The suspicion is that, for Corbyn and co, this is more about an unthinking adherence to a political dogma – one appears to regard private business with something akin to disdain – rather than the good of the nation.
The UK is falling behind other nations on the speed of its internet – and that is a real and pressing problem, particularly for the high-tech business of the future.
The fastest way to catch up would be to target any money invested in the system at the areas of the greatest need first.
The same can be said for other areas of government spending. Few people will be comforted by access to superfast broadband as they wait for hours in a hospital A&E department, for example, because of a shortage of staff.
This country has lots of problems that require solutions. We simply cannot afford to waste money on flights of ideologically driven fancy.