Labour’s election manifesto promise of free broadband to anyone as an essential ‘to compete in the global economy’, looks like a dated and unfunded copy of an election policy from Australia way back in 2006. The Labor Opposition Leader, Kim Beasley, made a very similar promise, however, it fell to his successor Kevin Rudd, who won the 2007 election, to deliver. After failing to get support from businesses for their Fiber To The Node (FTTN) technology model, the Labor government in 2009 created the National Broadband Network (NBN) touted as ‘the biggest infrastructure project in Australian history’.
As part of the project, Australia’s biggest telco Telstra (a privatised government entity very much like BT) agreed to shift all their customers to the NBN. By 2009 Labor’s cost estimates for the project had jumped from $15bn during the election campaign to $37bn (£19.5bn) to be funded by the government ($30bn/£15.8bn) with the remainder coming from private investors. Along the way the promised speed jumped from 12 Mbps to 50 Mbps and eventually to 1000 Mbps (1 gigabit).
By 2012 the Conservative Opposition Communications spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull, was publicly criticising the NBN and on winning the 2013 election, immediately launched multiple reviews and tweaks to the NBN. Unlike Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, Turnbull had real experience of the world of business, including as an investor in Australia’s first successful internet provider Ozemail. (He also successfully defended Peter Wright against the UK government in the Spycatcher case.)
By 2014, the NBN was well underway, at an optimistically lower cost of just $29.5bn (£15.5bn), including a payment of $11bn (£5.8bn) to Telstra for their old copper telephone network. By 2016, the NBN was still limping along with its rollout described as ‘shambolic’ and ‘abysmal’ with even a Labor spokesman describing their original plan as ‘too ambitious’. Turnbull, then Prime Minister, managed to ‘win’ the 2016 election with a majority of one (very like Theresa May’s victory in 2017) but by August 2018 he’d been replaced by Scott Morrison, a little-known politician who went on to win, what was widely held by the media and polls to be an unwinnable election (another lesson for the UK?).
2013 is at least three generations ago in technology terms and dog years in political ones, yet Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s ‘new idea’ is little more than a rehash of the ideas behind Australia’s NBN but without any sustainable economic model (beyond taxing foreign tech companies, but they make no mention of doing the same to local tech successes like Transferwise, Monzo, Funding Circle etc,). So far the NBN has cost Australian taxpayers over £16bn (and counting) for a patchy service that’s very expensive (both for wholesalers and consumers) – and good luck if you want coverage outside of major cities and towns. About the only people who have truly benefited from the NBN are the former national telco Telstra ($11bn+) and the ‘usual suspects’, a roster of consultants and advisors (McKinsey, KPMG, et al). Almost all the young people I met in Australia in April this year didn’t even use the NBN, instead relying on cheap, fast and reliable 4G connectivity from their mobile phone providers.
Labour’s plans are at best an underestimate of the real cost of building a national high-speed network. By eschewing any thought of a user-pays model, they will shift the huge costs to taxpayers long into the future. To Corbyn and McDonnell, £100bn for BT’s nationalisation might sound like a snip, and the legion of Labour activists spreading their political ideas via social media must think this sounds like a promise of Christmas every day. Sadly, while technology, particularly robust high-speed connectivity, is crucial to Britain’s social and economic future, Labour’s electoral promise of internet nirvana, is neither affordable nor achievable; it’s just a political pork-barrelled pokie!