Is Labour’s ‘Freebie ISP’ a good idea? #freebroadband #BLBroadband

I don’t give too much credence to election pledges from any political party. They are, in my opinion, carefully calculated bribes incentives to buy votes persuade the more easily swayed elements of the electorate; promises to be broken, forgotten, or re-interpreted once power is secured. Promises to implement policies and implemented policies are two very different things.  However, Labour’s recent ‘promise‘ for free “full-fibre” broadband for all UK homes and businesses has caught my geeky attention.  It’s a technological alternative to 5p off a litre of petrol or a freeze on alcohol duty.

Beyond its electioneering value (note that, unsurprisingly given the impending vote, the BBC’s article is posted under election news and not business or technology) I am: 1) struggling to see the point of this idea; and 2) concerned about its potentially negative impacts.

Struggling to see the point…

Remote areas aside, which is a problem that can be addressed separately (and is in some cases, e.g. see B4RN below and the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme), Internet connection speeds in the UK aren’t generally terrible. If someone is stuck using dial-up Internet or an expensive satellite service then I can understand the demand for an alternative. But for anyone with a broadband connection that means they can only watch Netflix in SD or HD rather than Ultra HD, I can’t see this first-world problem as a priority issue for government. I’m also not sure how appealing this plan would be to those who are happy with mobile data (and tethering if they need it) and who manage without fixed-line Internet.

With the continuing growth of cloud infrastructure, not to mention the long-standing ability to co-locate servers at suitable providers where high-speed connectivity needs to be combined with in-house provision, how many business will this appeal to? If I was a business owner, would I risk leaving my current provider for the “British Broadband” (BB) freebie? I can’t imagine that BB would be a world-beating ISP. As a free provider, why would it need to be? I’m reminded of my own 12 months of domestic broadband misery with TalkTalk The Phone Co-Op.

free_broadband_talktalk

The prospect of a nationalised ISP also brings to mind BL in the early 1980s and the resulting Morris Ital (apologies if you’re a fan of either). BL Broadband indeed <shudders>…

free_broadband_ital

Source: Wikipedia.

Potentially negative impacts…

I am more concerned with the impact that this scheme might have on existing providers. How many jobs will be lost when BB undercuts all of the competition? What about the ISPs that are already forced to use OpenReach, when it becomes BB? I’ll be surprised if wholesale connections are handed out for nothing. It’s hard to compete with free, at least in the scramble for those customers who make their purchasing decisions based solely on price. The budget ISPs could be hit especially hard and fewer providers doesn’t generally make a better marketplace.

Also, nationalisation doesn’t always promote innovation. Where is the incentive for private ISPs to invest in infrastructure when there is a monolithic, government-backed provider that doesn’t have to worry too much about efficiency or the bottom line? I wonder if there might be some legal moves from the big players on the basis of anti-competitiveness. I am also concerned about the impact on innovative co-operative and/or community initiatives such as Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN, an amazing non-profit project delivering speeds that put most urban providers to shame). Governments should provide more, not fewer, incentives for technological innovation.

As for taxing the “tech giants” to pay for this scheme, is this really a good idea? Given the ongoing Br**it situation, does any party want to make the UK seem less appealing to employers? Regardless, the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon have already proved capable of ‘streamlining’ their tax arrangements and so I wonder how much of the bill they would actually pay…

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