ourEconomy: Opinion

Bread, Roses and Broadband too?

Publicly owned fibre networks don’t just mean free WiFi. From energy grids to smart transport, they will be the backbone of a new, green socialist economy.

Miranda Hall
17 November 2019, 12.10pm
Image: geralt, public domain

In 2010, Google Fibre asked cities across America to compete against each other for superfast fibre broadband. Hundreds participated, promising tax breaks or access to publicly-funded infrastructure and Sarasota in Florida offered to rename itself to ‘Google Island.’

When Amazon launched a similar process last year to find their new HQ, Tucson Arizona sent Jeff Bezos a 21-foot cactus and New York turned all its light orange.

These depressing stunts indicate a massive shift in power. Hollowed out by neoliberal austerity, local and national governments around the world have become increasingly dependent on private companies, particularly tech firms, to provide investment and run key services and infrastructure.

The growing ‘techlash’ against Silicon Valley has opened up debates about the questions of ownership and control in the digital economy. But little attention has been paid to the role of the underlying digital infrastructure that enables flows of data, from fibre cables to mobile masts. This infrastructure is essential not just because it allows people to access the internet (to find a job, to access welfare benefits, for kids to do their homework, for elderly people stay in touch with relatives) but also because it will underpin essential services such as smart energy grids, transportation and e-health and tools for participatory democracy.

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While there is a growing consensus that digital connectivity should be treated as a common good like water or roads, private providers have failed to meet infrastructure targets. This year Google Fibre pulled out of Louisville (one of the few cities to get Google Fibre since its launch in 2010) leaving its roads badly damaged after a disastrous attempt to cut costs by laying cables in extremely shallow trenches.

Leaving the roll-out of full fibre to market forces in the UK has been similarly disastrous. Having been a world leader in fibre optics, in 1990 Thatcher decided that BT’s roll-out of fibre networks was ‘anti-competitive.’ Factories were closed down and contracts awarded instead to American companies to build copper cables (which will now be dug up) instead.

As many pointed out at the time, digital infrastructure is a natural monopoly that depends on economies of scale. Delivering it through competing providers makes absolutely no sense. The cost of the government’s free market fundamentalism has been high – the UK has the fourth worst coverage in Europe with only 8% full-fibre compared with (for example) 75% in Spain. In that time, BT has paid out £54bn in dividends to shareholders, which would cover the capital costs for a nationwide fibre network twice over.

This week, Labour announced plans to bring parts of BT into public ownership as part of a ‘massive upgrade in the UK’s internet infrastructure’ that would deliver free superfast broadband to every house and business in the country. The rollout would begin with communities that have the worst broadband access and would be paid for through Labour’s Green Transformation fund and taxing multinational corporations such as Amazon, Facebook and Google.

What is striking is how much money is saved by having one infrastructure provider rather than market competitions – an estimated £12bn according to the government’s own research. While market forces have resulted in providers focussing on wealthy urban areas, reproducing racial and class inequalities, state-led planning would ensure equal distribution of access.

Coverage of the policy has predominantly focussed on the offer of free broadband – what it will actually cost, and whether EU laws would allow it. But the strategic importance of fibre networks goes way beyond this. They are the backbone on which other essential services will be built from energy grids to smart transportation and e-health. The question of who owns and runs this backbone therefore determines the future of these sectors and whether we are able to transition to socialist models of production, coordination and governance. The design of digital infrastructures is political and will shape the design of our economy and society.

If this backbone is controlled by profit-driven investors, it will replicate the logic of what has been called ‘data extractivism’, ‘data colonialism’ or ‘surveillance capitalism.’ Digitize (and therefore monetize) everything you can get yours hands on and don’t ask about the human or environmental costs. The ICT sector already uses 50% more energy than global aviation and the demand for increased bandwidth with the roll-out of fibre-supported ubiquitous connectivity (or the ‘internet of things’) will massively exacerbate that.

These same high-yield systems enable social control, surveillance, predictive modelling and other dystopian ends. Public WiFi, Internet of Things (IoT) sensor networks and other systems of data extraction will concentrate power in the hands of state and private actors to disproportionately monitor and manage working class communities and communities of colour. As we have seen with Alphabet’s project to run an entire neighbourhood in Toronto ‘from the internet up,’ urban citizens with be increasingly “subject to corporate rather than democratic control.”

But if this backbone is brought into public ownership, it will play a crucial role in a transformative agenda to decarbonize the economy. Charging points for electric vehicles rely on fibre, but more importantly, connectivity could enable a new publicly-owned and digitally-mediated integrated transport system that includes better-planned bus routes, dockless bikes and e-scooters in order to hit carbon-reduction targets. Smart energy grids could be built on top of fibre networks in order to diversify energy sources and create more resilient and distributed power supply. Feedback loops from connected objects and Big Data could also enable forms of non-market economic planning to meet the challenges of climate breakdown and automation.

One question that remains is how this plan fits with Labour’s commitment to democratic public ownership. Rather than replicating the mistakes of older forms of public ownership that were excessively centralised, top-down political and managerial, the party wants to embed worker and wider social participation in decision making. This is particularly important in relation to concerns about handing more centralized control over data and digital infrastructures to state institutions that already thrive on excessive surveillance.

Fibre networks are not like care. The forms of grassroots co-production whereby workers shape services alongside elderly people or parents based on their lived experience does not necessarily apply to digital infrastructure – particularly due to economies of scale and high fixed costs. A municipal tendering process could enable cooperatives and community businesses at the level of villages or housing estates to build their own ‘last mile’ network running from local access nodes to their homes. But the process of building strong local relationships and ownership over infrastructure for groups who face barriers to participation through training and deep community organising may be incompatible with the ambitious roll-out schedule necessary to have full-fibre by 2030.

Publicly owned fibre sensors and platforms could play an important role in facilitating decentralised decision-making for all sectors of the economy. The decidim tool in Barcelona has allowed city organizations to run open budgeting and policy co-creation projects. Users presented over 11,700 and one of the outcomes was a collectively drafted mobility plan for car-free zones, curbing air pollution and reducing traffic by 21%.

But there are no tech solutions for a decentralised state. We must at least ensure that inequalities in digital access aren’t replaced by inequalities in ‘adoption.’ Free workshops and centres in every community should bring tech education to those who have difficulty accessing or have been harmed and oppressed by new technologies, allowing them to shape the digital future of their local area. Building grassroots power will also be essential to challenge the unchecked dissemination of new systems of surveillance and control, ensuring that racist technologies like facial recognition never see the light of day.

As Mariana Mazzucato observes, “innovation does not just have a rate of progression, it also has a direction” and that direction must be shaped from below.

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