Are ISPs the problem or the solution to getting broader broadband?

We need fast broadband, and we need it everywhere. But is it harder to do with one company controlling a third of the market?

One of the most exciting things about growing a business in the 21st Century is that thanks to the Internet, you have the ability to reach an infinite audience. In the UK we're particularly good at it. We generate 8 per cent of our GDP, £120 billion, through the Internet.

But of course, to start a business on the Internet, you need have to have access to it first. That's why the Lords Communications Committee report into the Government's plans for Superfast Broadband has struck a chord with so many. Current Government plans are to install 25Mbps high speed broadband across 90 per cent of the UK and a minimum of 2Mbps broadband for everyone by 2015. They hope to achieve this through the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) Project. But the Committee's report argues that Government is too focussed on speed, and it needs to change its focus from a 'high-speed' network to a 'high-spec' network. A core part of the concern is the affect the project, and the way it has been run, will have on competition in broadband provision.

According to Ofcom's figures the market is currently split between four key players BT (29.3 per cent), Virgin Media (20.2 per cent), TalkTalk (18.5 per cent), Sky (17.9 per cent) and the rest split up between smaller providers (14.2 per cent). But there are concerns, both at home and from the European Commission, that the BDUK project will serve to exacerbate BT's dominance in the market. Currently only BT is the only provider that has successfully bid for regional funding as part of BDUK, with the nine other interested parties withdrawing due to concerns over costs and the complication involved in providing fibre connections.

The problem of providing ensuring competition in the broadband market is by no means easy, particularly with the historical position of BT. Many other countries across the world are coming face to face with the sheer cost required to invest in this technology, versus the need for competition. As suggested by the Lords report there are a number of changes that could be made to the BDUK project to improve this, including potential open access fibre-optic hubs and public money only being awarded should be dependent on installing fibre to a local level rather than to the cabinet. They also propose "fibre hubs", which would allow neighbourhoods who set up their own networks to retain control rather than being required to hand ownership to BT and could connect the BT exchanges at a set price.

Apart from changes to the BDUK project there are other measures that could be taken to encourage competition that do not involve additional funding to the BDUK project. Ofcom has done good work in getting BT to reduce the cost of wholesale broadband and allow other ISPs access to its local exchanges in areas where BT is the sole provider, and ideally the cost would be reduced further. The Government can also, in light of its goals to deliver a better broadband, reconsider its decision from 2010 to scrap the review into the fibre tax which disadvantages other providers who must pay per metre of "dark fibre" to be lit.

Providing good competition to allow consumer choice is not just important for levels of service, speed and reliability as there are a number of wider issues that mean competition is increasingly important. Running parallel to the discussion over investment in broadband infrastructure we have the net neutrality debate. After many months of discussion ISPs have recently signed up to a voluntary “Open Internet Code of Practice”, which commits to them to providing full and open internet access and not block access to legal services which are bandwidth heavy, such as iPlayer or 4OD in the name of traffic management.

Most of the ISPs operating in the UK have signed up, including the dominant provider BT. Unfortunately Virgin Media, the second largest provider have not, citing issues with the wording of the code. The implementation of a voluntary code of practice relies upon consumers having real choice in their broadband connection, and the option to leave their provider if they do not comply with the code. Were the BDUK project to endanger future prospects for increased competition this would undermine the provision of an open internet.

And increasingly ISPs are being asked to take on more and more issues. While we want them to focus on providing us the best provision ISPs are currently being asked to look into; enforcing the Digital Economy Act and policing Internet users through a system of reports and warning letters; cooperate with the Government consultation looking into implementing 'default on' blocks for adult content; cooperate with the Home Office plans as part of the Communications Data Bill; and all while trying to put into place a better network for their customers who pay them for reliable access and good speeds.

We need to ensure that the UK has good enough Internet infrastructure to support our ambitions and not only compete with Europe, but with the world. The Government needs to decide where ISPs priorities should lie and consider whether it truly wants a broadband network fit for the future.

Sara Kelly is the Policy and Development Manager for the Coalition for a Digital Economy.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?