The superfast lane to nowheresville

Are we focusing on the wrong sort of connectivity?

Policy Exchange has a new report out today, and I'm not going to lie, my attention was piqued by the pun-tastic title, The Superfast and the Furious, because, wow.

Anyway, it makes a number of interesting recommendations, mostly going against the trend in recent years for promoting the spread of so-called "superfast" broadband – usually delivered by fibre-optic cables, and largely confined to dense built-up areas.

Instead, the authors, Chris Yiu and Sarah Fink, argue that the government should refocus on helping the people who remain offline, since:

Whether or not the UK has the fastest superfast broadband relative to other countries is a redundant question.

There has always been a target of delivering broadband of at least 2Mbps to the 10 per cent of houses which won't be able to get superfast broadband, and in fact, it's that target which the report suggests may need to be recalibrated. It points out that setting an absolute level of what constitutes "acceptable" broadband speed is foolhardy: when the target was set, 2Mbps was fast; now it's the minimum requirement to use iPlayer, a standard technology; tomorrow it may be too slow to do other things which we have come to expect as standard. One option they propose instead is to track "broadband poverty", identifying the number of houses where the best broadband option is a certain percentage below the median.

The report is an important counter to the prevailing trend in internet policy, which seems to be driven a bit too much by the fact that superfast broadband is cool, while replacing miles of copper wire with slightly better copper wire in rural Cumbria isn't. After all, the leap from no internet to some is far greater than the leap from fast to superfast – and the damage caused by having none at all is real and concerning. A recent Oxford University study found that "there are substantial educational advantages in teenagers being able to access the internet at home", for instance, while the report itself cites the fact that small businesses which "embrace" the internet grow "substantially faster" than those which remain offline.

But the thing which the report misses is that there's a second priority which ought to be key for the government to press for, and that's reliability. The authors pass this off as a matter for competition:

For the general public, broadband price and reliability matter as much as raw speed, and the optimal trade-off will vary from home to home and over time. The best way through is to let the market balance different needs, which in turn requires effective competition between providers.

I'm not so sure that's correct. Advertised reliability is certainly something which providers compete on, but due to the stickiness of the market, it appears that they rarely need to live up to those promises.

Increasingly, uptime, rather than speed, is the limit to wider adoption of the "internet economy" which Yiu and Fink are so keen to trumpet (citing figures which show that around eight per cent of UK GDP is due to the internet); the fear, or experience, of a connection failure can lead to understandable reluctance to make too many operations dependent on the net. This is true of a number of hoped-for internet driven productivity enhancements. Consider telecommuting, for example. Anyone who has experienced multiple-day outages will know the fear that one could happen when crucial work is riding on it.

The question is whether more reliable connections can be achieved through the market alone. I have my doubts. The market for high-speed internet only really became competitive once bogus claims were cracked down on by the ASA – but providers have steered clear of making similarly testable claims about connection stability. And switching companies remains such a hassle that it exerts a massive drag on the efficiency of competition to motivate anything.

Still, we must hope for a b++++DROPPED CONNECTION++++

A car drives fast. This is a metaphor. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.