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.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.