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Whether you think of it as a vote winner or a vote loser, Labour’s free fibre broadband scheme has captured the news agenda – but it is fairly clear that the tech industry is in the latter camp.
However, after time to take stock over the weekend, more nuanced views have emerged, with a consortium of fibre associations noting the good news that full fibre is now nationally recognised as essential for the nation’s future prosperity.
Labour first announced on 14 November that if it won the General Election, it would part-nationalise BT, bringing into public ownership the “broadband-relevant” parts of the telco, and offer, through a new public entity to be known as British Broadband, free full-fibre broadband to all individuals and businesses by 2030.
This would be part of a “public mission” to offer full-fibre access to the 90-92% of the country that currently does not have access to such networks, and Labour would also acquire the necessary access rights to the existing 8-10% of full-fibre assets in the UK.
Reaction to the announcement was swift and, with the exceptions of the conspicuously circumspect BT and Openreach, damning. Phrases such as “a spectacularly bad take”, “disaster”, “a huge setback” and “fundamentally misguided” were among those bandied about by leading members of the UK fibre industry.
However, Malcolm Corbett, CEO of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA), welcomed the commitment to broadband and digital infrastructure development shown by Labour, but warned that the practical implications of nationalising parts of BT, including Openreach, could have a negative impact.
“For the UK to become a world leader in full fibre and 5G, it needs to provide access for all, wherever people live or work, and we are pleased to see the commitment Labour has shown to this through its latest pledge,” he said.
“It is crucial, however, that how broadband is funded, rolled out and provided is considered, along with the wider impact the plan could have. The UK’s broadband market is currently thriving as a result of infrastructure investors and local communities, alongside the public sector. Some £3.3bn was committed by investors in alternative network providers [altnets] last year alone, in addition to investments by BT and Virgin Media.
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“We are concerned that some parts of [Labour’s] policy, for example nationalisation, will dampen the vibrant market for investment in new fibre networks in the short term, thus delaying fibre roll-out. Free broadband is an attractive consumer proposition but will be costly, could undermine innovation and consumer choice, as well as having a detrimental effect on the service provider sector.”
INCA has also signed a joint statement with TechUK – which issued a vituperative response to the plans – the UK Competitive Telecommunications Association (UKCTA) and the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) indicating the associations’ readiness to work with whatever government is elected on the best way to deliver fit-for-purpose broadband to the UK as soon as possible.
The statement said: “Labour have rightly identified the potential of widespread full fibre and the transformative benefits it will bring to the UK. However, as an industry, we believe this proposal will halt the significant investment already flowing into the industry, slow the large-scale builds currently under way, risk jobs now and in the future, and leave consumers with no choice.”
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