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Democratic digital infrastructure must be at the centre of a just recovery

Covid-19 has exposed the UK's stark digital divides. It's time to embrace a full-fibre future based on a new architecture of democratic ownership.

Mathew Lawrence
18 May 2020
Soeren Stache/DPA/PA Images

The spread of Covid-19 has shone a bright spotlight on both the vital need for reliable high-speed internet and the inadequacies of the for-profit, corporate model in delivering universal connection.

With the UK’s damaging digital divide starkly exposed during lockdown, and the UK’s current underwhelming approach to delivering a full-fibre future, a similarly bold response is required to build a 21st century digital infrastructure. Connecting the country should be at the centre of a just recovery, based on a new architecture of democratic ownership and governance of the UK’s digital, data and knowledge infrastructures.

Our current approach to building digital infrastructure – market-led competition by default, public subsidy for commercially viable premises where necessary – is failing to deliver. Almost half the country accesses their internet through early 20th century copper wire infrastructures. The UK is ranked 35th out of 37 countries assessed by the OECD for the proportion of fibre connections in its total fixed broadband infrastructure, with only 13% of households having full-fibre connection, and just 47% of those living on a low income use broadband internet at home.

The building and maintenance of the full fibre network is ill-suited to a wholly market-led, for-profit model of provision. This approach to building vital infrastructure is characterised by high fixed costs and economies of scale that make its deployment unprofitable in rural or poorer areas and lead to underprovision, poor connectivity heightens the digital divide and reinforces stark regional inequalities. Deployment of full-fibre exhibits classic market failures: the failure to deliver universal service without subsidy, and poor coordination of investment, with costly and excessive duplication in some areas and severe under-provision in others.

What’s more, and particularly in light of the global pandemic, vital digital infrastructure are likely to be developed to meet the needs of "surveillance capitalism", focused on generating behavioural data that can be translated into insight, intervention, and profit – a business model that is not geared to deliver a sustainable, privacy-enhancing, rights-preserving, innovative and democratic digital landscape.

Another digital world is possible. But delivering it will require moving beyond the “regulatory state” and market-oriented approaches that have dominated the development of digital infrastructure in recent decades – and which, while delivering a rich stream of dividends for private investors, have led to the slow roll-out of fibre/broadband, increased corporate concentration, and a deep digital divide. Instead, just as public investment built the infrastructures that underpinned twentieth century prosperity, we need a new public mission to connect the country for the 21st century.

The transition away from a for-profit model offers the opportunity to reshape core goals and principles of digital infrastructures, from rooting policies and programmes in universal access and empowering citizens and workers through participation, transparency, and accountability, to reducing corporate concentration, and linking digital infrastructure to a Green New Deal-led recovery.

As momentum grows for a transformative stimulus programme, building a new economy, not just reinflating the old, a central demand must be treating digital connectivity as a right, and organising digital infrastructure – including the wireless spectrum, cloud infrastructure, and the rollout and maintenance of fibre optic connections and 5G – as a vital 21st century public good.

Anchoring this should be a new public infrastructure company with a mission to build a 100 percent full-fibre network within a decade, alongside measures such as the expansion of community initiatives. The UK government’s own analysis suggests a monopoly provider would deliver a nationwide full-fibre network faster and at significantly lower cost than via "enhanced competition" among an oligopoly of private companies. With rumours that Openreach – a functional division of BT which connects the majority of premises to the national broadband and telephone – is to be sold, now is the time. A mission to connect the country should be central to a post-Covid recovery that is prosperous and just, with a ‘retrofitting revolution’ building a 21st century digital infrastructure.

Even prior to the public health emergency, with the full-fibre deployment moving at a dial-up pace, bolder action was required. Far from ‘broadband communism’ though, the building of a genuinely universal network owned by and for the public is common sense in the telecoms sector’s history. Both William Gladstone, who nationalised the telegraph industry, and Herbert Asquith, who took the telephone sector into public ownership, acted after market-led competition had failed to deliver a nationwide telecommunications network.

Public policy should further seek to reshape how digital infrastructure is deployed and owned, as well as how data are produced and distributed, moving from conditions of private enclosure to a digital commons. The Covid-19 epidemic, and the economic collapse that has resulted from it, has brought these questions front and centre. For instance, Mike Davis has recently raised the prospect that this crisis will eviscerate small businesses and further boost Amazon’s status as “the largest monopoly in world history.” In the face of this devastating prospect, Davis suggests that we should “nationalize the infrastructure of the digital age...and operate it as a series of democratically administered public utilities.”

Digital infrastructure does far more than just allow us to access the internet on our phones or computers. This infrastructure is the foundation on which a growing number of essential services are built, including public WiFi, telehealth, urban transport and mobility systems, smart energy grids, and electric vehicle charging. It is likely to become more significant with 5G technology which enables more detailed, interconnected sensor systems. The need for an alternative model of deployment that is faster and fairer is thus of vital importance: without control over the infrastructural foundations of the digital age, transitioning to less profit-driven, more socially useful models in these other sectors may well be impossible. With the need to remake our economy in the pursuit of a just transition as part of a wider Green New Deal, these technological capabilities are more vital than ever.

A democratic 21st century digital infrastructure can also open up a more innovative and experimental future, from the creation of national data funds and collective data banks to intervening around algorithmic systems; from reshaping platform work to socialising “feedback infrastructures”; to exploring how data infrastructure can be remade as sites of participation around both local and transnational issues.

The way we organise our digital infrastructure fundamentally shapes how wealth and power is distributed in society. The status quo market-driven methods for building the UK's full-fibre network have failed to deliver access and use for all, while new technologies – left unchecked – risk amplifying existing inequalities and forms of social harm and injustice.

With a publicly owned full-fibre network – delivered at a lower total cost and more rapidly than the alternatives – anchoring the UK’s digital infrastructure, new horizons emerge: the decommodification of connectivity through a public option ISP; the enshrining of Internet access as a 21st century human right; infrastructure capable of supporting a decarbonised economy; and strategies to ensure we all share the benefits of a digital future.

Common Wealth's new report, 'Democratic Digital Infrastructure', can be read here.

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