Internet Guide Logo

Labour proposes free universal Internet access for all UK homes

Last Edit: 16/10/19

The United Kingdom will be holding a general election on the 12th December 2019. While the election was primarily called to sort out the nation's future with the European Union, as with all general elections, domestic issues will form the bedrock of party manifestos. The Conservative and Labour parties have yet to release their 2019 manifestos, but it is looking increasingly likely that Labour will include a promise to provide "superfast broadband to every home and business in the country by 2030"; having rationalised the decision by arguing that the Internet should become a "treasured national institution for the 21st century".

Historically, the UK's telecommunications network was effectively nationalised from 1912-1984, due to a virtual monopoly held by the General Post Office (GPO) over the UK's telecoms network. This monopoly was further cemented by the Post Office Act in 1969, that enshrined in law the Post Office's exclusive right to operate the UK's nationwide telecom network. However, when Margaret Thatcher's Conservative party came to power in 1979, it led to a 'free market' economic policy, which led to nationalised industries becoming privitised, the largest of which was British Telecom (the new name for Post Office Telecommunications).

In relation to the Internet, the vast majority of UK homes and businesses connect to the Internet via BT's copper landline network -- which is now maintained and upgraded by BT Wholesale/BT Openreach. The vast majority of UK ISPs -- excluding Virgin Media who operate their own cable network -- pay to access BT's network, and therefore, even if UK consumers can buy from multiple private separate Internet providers, these providers are typically using the same network hardware: BT's. The problem that has arisen is that many people believe BT Wholesale have under-invested in their network, and this has led to the UK falling behind in international tables (OCED) when it comes to accessing superfast broadband (fibre).

Therefore, to combat this lack of investment, the Labour Party is apparently proposing to nationalise parts of BT Wholesale/BT Openreach so that it can directly invest in the UK's telecoms network and meet its promise of providing "superfast broadband to every home and business in the country by 2030". According to the BBC, Boris Johnson, the leader of the Conservative Party, has dismissed the idea as "a crackpot scheme". Instead, the Conservative Party have suggested they may subsidise, to the 'tune' of £5 billion, the roll-out of full-fibre Internet access by 2025. At present, no firm promise has been made by either party, with neither having released their manifesto.

So, will Labour's policy of 'free broadband for all' be popular? according to a YouGov poll, the reaction has been positive, with 62% of the general population in favour of free Internet access and 22% against. Of course, with all polls, it depends upon on how the question was framed, with far less people being in favour of BT being nationalised and the public sector running the national network (32% in favour, 31% against in 2017). As one would expect, the left wing media has largely praised Labour's idea and the right wing press has been more skeptical, with Matthew Lesh in the Sunday Telegraph noting, "In 2009, the Australian Labor Party promised to build a national broadband network. Six years later, just one in 12 households could access it and it is still not finished."