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Free broadband? Yes but…

November 15, 2019

Not that it’s likely to be relevant given that the current British election seems to be more about “Boris Johnson’s a good chap and Jeremy Corbyn is the Devil” than actual policies, other than Brexit of course, but Labour’s idea of nationalising our broadband has its merits. Unfortunately there are plenty of drawbacks.

Certainly, giving everyone a level playing field in terms of speed and access would benefit millions of people in areas where coverage and data speeds are currently poor. Schools and other poorly-served institutions would also gain, for a while anyway.

But…. Here are five reasons why we might in future see such a move as a serious mistake.

Lack of competition potentially affects pricing. If it’s free, it’s free. But not everybody can live with a one-size-fits-all service. There are bound to be premium services at a price, and if our new Broadband Agency, or whatever else it might be called, is unable to deliver super-fast internet at an acceptable price, there’s a danger that some businesses will move elsewhere, bringing jobs with them.

Dependence on government funding. Labour promises £20 billion to upgrade our internet infrastructure. Fine, but if the money runs out and other priorities take precedence, there must be a danger that we’ll be left with unfinished projects. There will be winners and losers, resentment and frustration, just as we find today in the National Health Service. Broadband will turn into a political football.

Competence of administration. Given the notorious failures by successive governments to implement IT and other infrastructure upgrades over the past twenty years, do we have much confidence that they’ll do a better job with broadband? Not only that, but once the upgrade is complete, do we seriously believe that the quality of management of the ongoing service would match that currently provided by the private sector, which is already pretty lousy?

Potential for government control of the internet. It’s hard to imagine Britain becoming an authoritarian state along the lines of Russia and China, but given where we are today less hard than we might think. Do we really want the internet to be controlled by an authoritarian government that sees the internet as an opportunity to keep tabs on its citizens, and in extremis can easily deny access to certain sites or even switch the service off altogether?

Vulnerability of internet infrastructure. With the internet free to everyone, it’s likely that any government would wish to roll out services exclusively through online delivery. That’s fine in theory, but it increases our vulnerability to cyber attacks that might bring the functioning of society to a standstill. Right now, you can still use traditional means to pay your bills, buy services, communicate and go about your daily life without having to go online. What if everything is online and the whole edifice collapses?

Those are the big five drawbacks as far is I’m concerned. Are they surmountable? Possibly. But there’s an even bigger issue. The internet is a wild and sometimes vicious place. We know all about porn, political manipulation, online fraud, gambling, the destruction of high street retail and other consequences of untrammelled access. Would it not be better if we took a holistic approach to mitigating the worst effects of the online world before we turn it into a state-owned utility?

I’m not suggesting a Chinese-style Great Firewall, which is synonymous with the kind of universal surveillance tool Vladimir Putin appears to want in Russia. But surely we can do more to protect ourselves from the erosion of our society at the hands of internet predators. After all, are our politicians not in the business of helping us to take back control?

I challenge each party to tell us how it proposes to protect us from on-line monopolies, the political exploitation of the social media, internet trolls and malicious attacks on our infrastructure. We should also hear how they plan to safeguard the vulnerable against fraud, porn and online gambling.

Address these issues in a package of measures that are practical and coherent, and then we’ll talk about free internet.


  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    One other drawback– by the time it’s fully built out, would it still be relevant? At the rate technology “progresses” it could well be outmoded/surpassed/no longer supported before the construction could be completed.

    • Thank you Debbie. Very good point. Should have thought of that myself!

  2. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Brits will always give you a reason NOT to do something.

    I’ve seen this billed as “Corbyn’s Communist Internet”.

    My answer to that is: “Well, the UK isn’t as advanced as Estonia, and there’s been nothing communist about Estonia since 1991.” (see If ever there was a reason for Balkanisation within a United States of Europe, this is it! Each nation with its specialisation contributing to the whole(?).

    “IT’S TOO BIG”, said Marilyn Chambers.

    The UK can’t even build a railway line and Berlin can’t even build an airport.

    By all means stay in the 20th century with a “CAN’T DO” attitude (or a 19th century one if you’re Jacob Rees-Mogg).

    “We do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are HARD” – JFK

    • Thanks Andrew. I never said it couldn’t be done, just that there are several risks that should be mitigated against. But the most important point is that we need to fix the dark aspects of the net, or as many as we can, before attempting such a project. S

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