On Tuesday the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills released the 144-page report ‘Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future’. It’s a typical government report, calling for ‘immediate and extensive action’ in something or other — and in this case, unifying government's current, disjointed digital initiatives with the launch of a grand ‘Digital Agenda’. (This masterplan includes such fabulous ideas as the middle-aged men in central government ‘future-proofing our young people’ through things like bolting-on a digital element to all apprenticeship schemes.) One of the report’s most newsworthy findings was London’s poor broadband speed, comparative to other European capitals. In a ranking of their average download speed London came 26th — nestled between Warsaw & Minsk —whilst the likes of Bucharest, Paris and Stockholm topped the chart. London also came 38th in a rating of the UK's cities’ speeds (although it's worth noting that Bolton, the UK’s fastest city, would make the European capital ranking’s Top 10). The Lord's report is also concerned with the persistence of internet ‘not spots’ in urban areas, universal internet coverage and the rollout of superfast broadband. In response, it calls on the government to classify the internet as a utility service, with the desirable goal of universal online access.
It goes without saying how vital digital connectivity is to the modern economy, as well as the importance of staying internationally competitive. However, a new, centrally-dictated ‘Digital Agenda’ is probably quite an ineffectual and expensive way of boosting the digital economy.
Despite the House of Lords' fears about the speed of superfast broadband rollout, coverage has increased from 55-60% of the UK in 2013, to 70-75% in 2014. And, whilst the report holds up Cape Town as an example of a city providing universal broadband, this won’t be ready until 2030. In the time it takes for the state to roll out the chosen digital infrastructure, it may already be out of date. Whilst many are still choosing between regular or fibre optic broadband, landline-free 4G home broadband is the latest offering to hit London. At the same time, eyes are already on 5G, and the new capabilities it can bring.
Treating the internet as a public utility is also problematic from a free-market standpoint. Doing so could, for example, lead to calls for more government involvement in the deployment and update of internet infrastructure. However, a study by the Mercatus Centre looked at American municipal government investment in broadband networks across 80 cities, and found that for the billions of dollars of public money spent, there was little community or economic benefit.
It’s also the type of thinking which has led to America's ‘Net Neutrality’ debate, where, on the behest of Obama, the Federal Communications Commission has proposed to regulate internet service providers as 'common carriers', and in doing so, subject the net to a 20th century public utility law originally devised to deal with the telephone monopoly. Ostensibly designed to protect consumers from the creation of ‘anti-competitive’ internet fast lanes for big content producers, Net Neutrality legislation threatens not only the speed, price and quality of internet provision, but the autonomy of ISPs and investment at the core of the net.
Whilst the Lord's proposed 'Digital Agenda' might seem far-removed from such heavy-handed state activity, a government who considers it their duty to take online and 'digitally educate' every single citizen risks heading down an increasingly interventionist and expensive path.