Free broadband for all

There have probably been a thousand blog posts and LinkedIn posts already about Labour’s proposal for “free broadband for all,” but I’m going to add my tuppence-worth.  Given (one of) my Twitter handle(s) is @internetplumber, I feel it’s almost a duty.  Whilst these are my personal opinions, they’re written as someone that works in a service provider that is already largely publicly funded.

First a bit of background.  BT used to be a monolithic company that owned and operated both the physical infrastructure (fibre and copper in the ground) plus the services on top of it (phone, Internet).  To encourage competition in the services, which require access to the infrastructure, the latter was split into a company called Openreach, which is regulated, and must offer access to the infrastructure equitably to all – whether that’s BT (who also own Plusnet), TalkTalk, Virgin, Sky, or any number of other service providers (including Jisc for the Janet network, and the ISP I use at home – Andrews and Arnold).

Labour’s suggestion that they’ll provide free broadband for all using “full fibre” via a nationalised provider encroaches both on the physical infrastructure (Openreach), and the services (BT et al).

Building Fibre to the Home is expensive.  We do it for Higher and Further education, using a combination of dark fibre provided by commercial companies and products from Openreach, but this is on the scale for resilient connections to about 1,000 customers.

There are about 25,000,000 homes in the UK. A lot of those are in metropolitan areas where small fibre distances can reach many customers, but digging in cities is time-consuming and expensive.  Other homes are out in the country which, whilst perhaps easier to dig, requires a long stretch of fibre to get back to the nearest Exchange.  At £1,000 per house, that’s already £25bn.  This is an expensive investment which would benefit from public money, otherwise it may not happen, or at least it may only happen sporadically.

The Internet access on top of that infrastructure is already a very competitive market, which benefits the consumer in terms of being able to choose the right service provider for them. For example, whilst my wife would like me to use BT so that I could get access to BT Sport to watch the rugby, I have used Andrews and Arnold for a long time because they rolled out IPv6 access before just about any other domestic service provider in the UK. All Internet access is not the same.

Governments are frequently talking about regulating the Internet in one form or another.  Are you happy with only being able to visit government-sanctioned websites?  Or only using government-approved communications methods which they can, presumably, snoop on? Our gas, electricity and water do not come for free – even before deregulation there were electricity bills, gas bills and water rates, is broadband more essential than those other utilities?

Don’t mistake me, I think universal, fast, Internet access is something we all deserve and increasingly require, but are we making the right utility free, and what is the cost of making it free?

There’s a saying in the Internet industry – “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”  Where will the information collected by British Broadband be held?  What will it be used for?