Labour’s free broadband is a 19th century answer to a 21st century problem – David Behrens

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn
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I like a free offer as much as the next man, especially one that involves offloading one of my biggest monthly bills to the state.

But there are a number of reasons why Jeremy Corbyn’s bribe of publicly-funded broadband for all is a terrible idea, and the problems are not just financial.

Labour has promised free broadband

Labour has promised free broadband

State-controlled internet – for that is what the Labour proposal amounts to – means placing the nation’s most important, most universal communications medium in the hands of a single publisher. If such a deal were proposed by the broadcast or publishing industries, the Competition Commission would have to be called in.

Yes, individual websites would remain under their own creative control, but only up to the point at which they reached the telephone exchange near your house. That’s the stage at which everything converges into the same pipeline – and with no plurality of control, anything not considered “on message” could conceivably be filtered out.

That’s the way it’s done in China.

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It is unlikely that the present Labour leadership is planning to exercise such granular control. The idea probably didn’t occur to them when they thrashed out the plan on the back of a cigarette packet the day before they announced it. But the mechanism, once installed, will be there for someone else to exploit. It’s a high price to pay for a free gift.

And how much of a gift will it be anyway? The technology through which broadband is delivered is advancing every year, and speeds which are considered fast today will be inadequate before the next Government’s term is out. State investment could not possibly keep up with it – we’d be spending more on free broadband than on healthcare – so instead we’ll be stuck together on the hard shoulder of the information superhighway, with those of us prepared to pay for the fastest speeds denied the opportunity.

That is close to what happened in Australia, whose own Labour Party 12 years ago created what it called the National Broadband Network, funded by a mix of public and private investment. The initial cost of £7bn rose nearly threefold and the project became a financial and technical shambles from which the country has not recovered. It has still not reached some rural areas and only a quarter of homes have connections fast enough to watch Netflix, should they wish to.

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A later Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, replaced the system with the promise of a faster and cheaper national network, but in the event it was neither, and he has admitted that, with hindsight, it was a mistake. It may never make back the money taxpayers put into it, he said.

It was bad public relations, too. No government wants to have to carry the can for everyone’s broadband being too slow.

And despite the expense, Australians never expected the service to be free; users must pay £30 to £50 a month, depending how much data they use.

The experience there should have served as a warning to our own Labour Party not to meddle in something that was outside their sphere of expertise and whose development they could not control. So should the last Labour Government’s disastrous stewardship of the Millennium Dome, another vanity project.

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Let’s also not forget how appalling Britain’s telecommuni­cations network was when it was last in public hands.

You weren’t allowed to buy a telephone over the counter and if you wanted an extension in the bedroom, you went onto a six month waiting list. When other countries went digital, our exchanges were still mechanical.

Starved of competition and of entrepreneurial investment, that’s how the network will be again.

This is not to say that there is no place for public involvement in the provision of broadband – but the proper places are in the Yorkshire Dales and other remote parts of our region that are poorly served by the free market.

A progressive government could help finance the extension of the infrastructure to such communities – as has happened in Japan and South Korea, which rank way above Britain in their average broadband speeds.

It could also help to create an upgraded “national grid” that would guarantee coverage to every home.

But in adopting the sledgehammer approach of simply nationalising the whole industry, Labour is taking a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.

For an industry that moves only forwards, that’s never going to work.