The Covid-19 crisis has shown why we need free broadband

Labour’s call for universal internet access fell flat at the 2019 general election – but the pandemic has made it an economic imperative.

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As England settles into its third national lockdown, with cases of Covid-19 surging to unprecedented highs, there shouldn’t be any doubt that we are in this for the long haul. Government scientific spokespeople have been cautious about the likely implications of endemic Covid-19, but as England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned earlier in the week, even with functioning vaccines future lockdowns during the winter months could be needed. Many of the changes over the past year in how we live are here to stay.

One of the most critical, and least likely to unwind, is our deep and growing dependence on digital technology. In today’s world, fast, reliable broadband is not a desirable extra, but a fundamental requirement for a decent life. There is increasing political recognition of this: Labour’s shadow schools minister Wes Streeting and shadow digital minister Chi Onwurah have rightly called for laptops to be provided to every child who needs one, and for the “zero-rating” of education websites, removing their data count from monthly allowances in mobile and other data packages.

This should be viewed as an essential minimum. It can also easily be met: for the £849m price of the idiotic “Eat Out to Help Out” programme, responsible for increasing clusters of Covid-19 infections by up to 17 per cent in some areas during its operation, all 1.4 million children receiving free school meals in England could have been given a laptop and a 12-month broadband subscription.

More generally, the need for an urgent investment boost to provide reliable internet access could not be clearer. This government is persistently missing its own targets to improve Britain’s lagging internet performance. Just over a quarter of British homes have access to 1 gigabit-speed broadband, trailing far behind not only South Korea on 93 per cent of its population, but even sparsely populated Sweden (53 per cent) and New Zealand (62 per cent). Britain now has among the slowest download speeds in Europe, slipping from 34th to 47th in the world rankings last year. Covid-19 has reinforced the “digital divide”, with 10 per cent of adults having no internet access at all.

[see also: Ofcom director: Full fibre broadband in the UK could take more than seven years]

And this bad situation is set to get worse. Parliament’s digital, culture, media and sport committee reported shortly before Christmas that the government was unlikely to meet even its watered-down target of 85 per cent of households having gigabit broadband by 2025. Its combination of limited subsidies and private provision is not working. This is a huge missed opportunity because the potential economic gains from gigabit broadband are enormous, at £59bn a year by 2025, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

All this is an unqualified vindication of Labour’s 2019 manifesto pledge to offer free, fast broadband to every household in the country by 2030. It is a vindication, too, of the belief that government funding would be needed to deliver it, with today's record-low interest rates making now the ideal time to invest at the scale required. Labour’s pledge to tax the internet giants to pay for the operating costs of broadband looks increasingly ahead of its time, too, as this Conservative government seeks to implement its own Digital Services Tax.

The policy landed nigh-on perfectly in November 2019, dominating the broadcast headlines on the evening of its release and driving discussion over the next few days. For a brief period it even forced Brexit out of the headlines, as Owen Jones notes in his recent account, This Land. But the rush didn’t last; the conversation soon reverted to Brexit, and the election was dramatically lost. The broadband pledge is still held up as an example of the quixotism of Corbyn-led Labour – the then leadership contender Lisa Nandy, for instance, claimed shortly after the election that the policy had “missed the mark” for her constituents in Wigan, where “free bus passes” would be more appropriate.

[see also: Owen Jones: “I begged John McDonnell to stand for Labour leader”]

Though wrong, such criticism contains two important elements of truth. First, it was a mistake for Labour to become mired in a row about the process of enacting the policy, rather than focusing on its outcome. By laying out detailed plans for nationalising broadband, Labour both tied itself to a specific model of delivery and ownership, closing down its future options, and became entangled in a distracting side-debate about state-run services. Public ownership of broadband happens across the world: in the US, 800 communities have established locally owned broadband networks, of which 500 are publicly owned, while Stockholm’s super-fast network, supporting “Sweden’s Silicon Valley”, is municipally owned. But these don’t all rely on the form of ownership Labour proposed. It should have been possible to set the goal of free access, and then insist on using the best social value for money to get there, which would, in practice, be a public provision model.

This is where Labour ran into its second problem with the landmark policy, which was to present its vision chiefly in terms of the government doing more things. The manifesto became less a programme to transform capitalism, and more a programme to squeeze as much as possible out of the capitalism that existed. The Green New Deal became a (very substantial) state investment scheme, directed from Westminster: critically important, but not enough to meet the challenges of not only decarbonisation but the entire spread of environmental disasters now hitting us. Worse, by offering a purely technocratic version of solving climate change, the proposal lost credibility. In a Brexit election framed around winning freedom, Labour offered more state control.

[see also: Why Labour is failing to benefit from Boris Johnson’s repeated mistakes]

Yet there was a different vision buried in Labour’s manifesto: of a low-carbon digital egalitarianism that flipped the toxic spaces and vast inequalities of our present data economy on their heads to fulfil the potential that mass computing once held – and still could hold. Such a vision could deliver huge reductions in our carbon output and resource use by changing how we live and work, creating the conditions for new businesses to flourish, new jobs to be created and new ways of living to be found.

This argument can be made without the wonk-speak. Shortly after the 2019 election Sam Tarry, the newly elected MP for Ilford South, made the case clearly and simply that the offer of full-fibre broadband was an economic development issue – about helping the small towns and rural communities that “lacked decent broadband coverage”, which the market was failing to provide. Broadband could, and should, have been the centrepiece of Labour’s economic message­­: not Christmas presents for everyone, but a serious programme to overhaul and rebuild the whole country on a fairer, more sustainable basis with digital infrastructure as its backbone. That vision was hazy in 2019, at best; but its potential remains and 2024 could be the election to realise it.

James Meadway is an economist and former adviser to shadow chancellor John McDonnell. 

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