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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Brexiteers want national sovereignty and tighter borders – but they can't have both

The role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point in talks.

Why doesn't Theresa May's counter-offer on the rights of European citizens living and working in Britain pass muster among the EU27? It all comes down to one of the biggest sticking points in the Brexit talks: the role of the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission, under direction from the leaders of member states, wants the rights of the three million living here and of the British diaspora in the EU guaranteed by the European Court. Why? Because that way, the status of EU citizens here or that of British nationals in the EU aren't subject to the whims of a simple majority vote in the legislature.

This is where Liam Fox, as crassly he might have put it, has a point about the difference between the UK and the EU27, being that the UK does not "need to bury" its 20th century history. We're one of the few countries in the EU where political elites get away with saying, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" when it comes to checks on legislative power. For the leaders of member states, a guarantee not backed up by the European Court of Justice is no guarantee at all.

That comes down to the biggest sticking point of the Brexit talks: rules. In terms of the deal that most British voters, Leave or Remain, want – a non-disruptive exit that allows the British government to set immigration policy – UK politicians can get that, provided they concede on money and rules, ie we continue to follow the directions of the European Court while having no power to set them. Britain could even seek its own trade deals and have that arrangement.

But the problem is that deal runs up against the motivations of the Brexit elite, who are in the main unfussed about migration but are concerned about sovereignty – and remaining subject to the rule of the ECJ without being able to set its parameters is, it goes without saying, a significant loss of sovereignty. 

Can a fudge be found? That the Article 50 process goes so heavily in favour of the EU27 and against the leaving member means that the appetite on the EuCo side for a fudge is limited. 

But there is hope, as David Davis has conceded that there will have to be an international guarantor, as of course there will have to be. If you trade across borders, you need a cross-border referee. If a plane goes up in one country and lands in another, then it is, by necessity, regulated across borders. (That arrangement has also been mooted by Sigmar Gabriel, foreign minister in Angela Merkel's government. But that Gabriel's centre-left party looks likely to be expelled from coalition after the next election means that his support isn't as valuable as many Brexiteers seem to think.)

On the Conservative side, a new EU-UK international body would satisfy the words of May's ECJ red line. On the EU27 side, that the body would, inevitably, take its lead from the treaties of the EU sans Britain and the ECJ would mean that in spirit, Britain would be subject to the ECJ by another name.

But it comes back to the Brexit dilemma. You can satisfy the voters' demand for non-disruptive control of British borders. You can satisfy political demand for sovereignty. But you can't have both. May – and whoever replaces her – will face the same question: who do you disappoint?

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.

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