Internet access has been a lifeline during the Covid pandemic.  Miriam Brett argues it is too important to remain in the hands of private sector interests.

An invisible lifeform has made public many and deep shortcomings in how the UK organises its economy. For this enlightenment we should thank Covid-19 and seize the opportunities to right the wrongs that have been revealed. But how?

The means to challenge the deep-rooted inequalities that continue to scar our communities lies in the creation of a modernised and equitable digital infrastructure – a publicly-owned digital commons for all.

Fully realised, the power of digital infrastructure is immense. It can bring an array of benefits, from boosting productivity to acting as a precondition to delivering essential services and implementing a Green New Deal. Specifically this demands a rapidly-rolled out universal full-fibre network that can underpin 5G and other next-generation forms of connectivity,

But achieving this requires more than tweaking the margins of a market-led model that is designed to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few. 

The current approach to delivering digital infrastructure is in the hands of a small set of private companies, where the role of public policy is largely reduced to subsidising the connection. Private investment is unable or unwilling to build the full fibre
infrastructure needed to meet the needs of a society and an economy increasingly-reliant on digital infrastructure. Under the current approach, the UK is ranked a woeful 35th out of 37 countries assessed by the OECD for the proportion of fibre connections in its total fixed-broadband infrastructure, and only 13% of households have full-fibre connection.

“Fully realised, the power of digital infrastructure is immense.”

This market-first strategy to digital infrastructure has created a raft of problems, from prioritising shareholder returns over investing in vital infrastructures, to undemocratic ownership and governance of essential services. Private sector providers cherry pick their coverage to focus on the most profitable areas, rather than investing to deliver universal coverage. Between 2010 and 2018, shareholder pay-outs averaged just under half of BT Group’s pre-tax income, while BT’s fixed investment fell as a proportion of pre-tax income. 

In place of this inefficient approach, we need to construct a new digital infrastructure that is sustainable, enhances  privacy, preserves rights, and is innovative and democratic by design to provide full-fibre access to all. This requires:

  • all households to be connected to full fibre by 2030; 
  • citizens and workers to be empowered through participation, transparency, and accountability; 
  • reduced corporate concentration and political power; 
  • digital infrastructure to be linked to ecological sustainability; and 
  • people to have control and power over their own data. 

Once such a network is built, and publicly-owned, new possibilities like free connectivity at point of use come into play.

In its paper, Democratic Digital Infrastructure, Common Wealth has set out a series of steps to deliver a 100% full-fibre network by 2030.

The first step is to create a new public infrastructure company with a mission to deliver a nationwide full-fibre network by 2030. The UK government’s own analysis shows that a monopoly provider would deliver a nationwide full-fibre network faster and at notably lower cost than  “enhanced competition” – as it describes the roll-out of full-fibre by a handful of private providers. 

The new public company would conduct an ambitious roll out of full fibre by taking into public ownership, BT’s networks arm, Openreach, as well as the parts of BT Group relevant to rolling out the core network. Rather than paying dividends, the company would reinvest profits back into the development of the network, effectively reversing the current logic. And it could borrow to invest at cheaper rates than current providers. 

“Public ownership in, and of itself, does not go far enough.”

But public ownership in, and of itself, does not go far enough. An extension of the principles of public ownership demands accountability and democratic control of core pillars of our digital infrastructure. That requires a new digital platform to debate and shape national and local digital priorities and the expansion of community initiatives to boost pluralist business models. And the regulatory framework around fibre network, such as data surveillance needs to be advanced. Moreover, we could use digital infrastructure to drive decarbonisation by, for example, allowing the Committee on Climate Change to advise the National Infrastructure Commission on ways in which digital infrastructure can reach net zero.  

As internet connectivity remains far from universal, the economy continues to entrench disastrous monopolies without proper regulation, and communities continue to struggle with deep-rooted digital inequality. With the pace of technological advancements comes fresh questions around data protection:  how it is collected, what purpose it serves, and how decisions around its ownership and dissemination are made. 

Building a more equitable-technology future where the tools we build are in service of a common good, rather than oligarchic surveillance, could demand the creation of a new public sector institution, as set out by Dan Hind in his Common Wealth paper, , to be “tasked with developing a surveillance-free platform architecture to enable citizens to interact with one another, provide support for publicly funded journalism, and develop resources for social and political communication.” 

“The pandemic has exposed deep-set inadequacies in our current approach to digital infrastructure.”

The deepened power of the existing digital platform-based economy and swift growth in the power of tech giants illustrate how the Covid pandemic has solidified problematic aspects of  the status quo. As Common Wealth’s Hettie O’Brian and Mathew Lawrence point out, “As small businesses went bankrupt and workers were laid off, Amazon announced it was hiring an additional 100,000 workers as  its founder was on course to become the world’s first trillionaire.”

Critical to any challenge to the consolidation and reach of tech corporations would be tackling their dominance of cloud computing infrastructures. They have not only become a key source of revenue but an instrument of control over the broader direction of our economy. 

This dominance could be dismantled by requiring major tech companies to separate their cloud infrastructure businesses and then regulate cloud providers as key public utilities.  Or by creating a public option “cloud infrastructure” used to host and process government data that already exist. 

The pandemic has exposed deep-set inadequacies in our current approach to digital infrastructure, at a time when it is playing a key role in shaping the distribution of power in our society – a role that the pandemic has made clearer than ever.

Rather than leaving its future in the hands of an increasingly concentrated set of corporate actors, we should look to harness digital infrastructure to meet our needs and enhance our capabilities. To achieve that end connectivity must be made a fundamental human right and cease to be a commodity. Then it can be  reoriented to meet social and environmental goals. 

Miriam Brett

Miriam is Director of Research and Advocacy for Common Wealth think tank, working on ownership strategies for a democratic and sustainable economy. She is also a research fellow for The …

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