Labour’s Lithuanian broadband plan

Ah, November 15th and the General Election advent calendar door opens to reveal… technology!

Labour announced bold plans to nationalise part of BT and pump in £20bn to provide full fibre broadband free to every home and business in the UK by 2030.

As usual, much of the coverage and interviews have focused on the political and commercial side (market reaction, Labour’s previous statements about not wanting to nationalise all of BT, etc).

Depressingly, no-one seems to have asked the obvious question: what is the actual plan and how will it work?

“Full fibre broadband” implies running a high-capacity fibre optic cable all the way into every home and business in the UK. (At the moment, in the vast majority of cases the fibre connection only reaches as far as a nearby junction box, with a copper cable making the final leap – thereby restricting speeds. Handy BBC guide).

If that is indeed the plan, look forward to more roadworks (perhaps not quite as disruptive as the water companies’ replacement of old metal pipes with plastic ones, but certainly as widespread). And if those roadworks involve running a cable up every driveway in Britain no matter how remote, it’ll be expensive, making Labour’s £20bn figure look suspiciously cheap (BT bosses were talking about £40bn – £100bn instead).

Is there another option? BT already have a widespread WiFi network. Might it be possible to beef that up to provide something that could be described as “full fibre broadband”, but beamed out over WiFi? (Note that Labour aren’t using the phrase “full fibre to the premises“, which is the specific term for running cables right into properties).

And then there’s the issue of making this free to consumers. Labour Chancellor John McDonnell pointed to the example of South Korea, where blisteringly fast Internet speeds have been provided by a government-administered company. But it’s not free (though it’s far cheaper than in the UK).

From an (admittedly brief) internet search, one of the only places I could find where there is reportedly universal free Internet access is Lithuania. By comparison to the UK it’s a tiny country, and more importantly it didn’t have to get around decades of entrenched legacy communications infrastructure.

One final thought: might the whole broadband debate be superseded anyway? Within ten years we’re likely to see the arrival of superfast 5G over the mobile network. Some claim this will make broadband obsolete (though those of us who remember the hype around 3G and 4G – and the speed with which those networks were flooded with traffic – are rightly skeptical).

Just to stress, I have no party-political stance on this: for years Conservatives in government have failed to grasp the broadband nettle, and leader Boris Johnson’s commitment to £5bn of investment looks pretty thin to me.

Undoubtedly, giving Britons fast Internet access has all sorts of benefits for productivity, plus the potential environmental win of allowing remote working. But if it’s going to happen, we need more solid proposals than we’ve seen so far.

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