The Guardian view on the Ofcom deal: too little, too slowly | Editorial

A BT Openreach engineer works on a telephone line in Manchester. ‘There is a case to be made for a nationalised monopoly supplying something so important.’ Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

Of course you can live a decent life without broadband, just as you can live well with a cesspit, instead of mains drainage, and a petrol generator to supply your electricity for when you want to watch television. Candles supply a much warmer light than soulless LEDs and no one should need the internet when it is full of nameless horrors that threaten the peace of the home. But very few people choose to live like that and those who do are cut off from full participation in the life of society around them. Society, in turn, understands mains water and electricity as utilities to which everyone has a right, to be supplied as cheaply as possible, consistent with keeping the network going. Shouldn’t broadband access to the internet be treated as the same kind of utility?

If it were, we would ask what kind of ownership structure and which incentives could best deliver the widest, fastest coverage at the lowest price. And no one who asks that question is likely to leap, dripping, from their bath and crying “BT!” There is a case to be made for a nationalised monopoly supplying something so important; there is even a case for a co-operative owned more directly by its users than a nationalised monopoly could. But there is no case whatever for a private monopoly which can supply something so critical to full social and economic participation in society. Openreach, the part of BT which supplies and maintains Britain’s broadband infrastructure, is a straightforward example of tax-farming. Now it is to become a legally separate company, but this means more or less nothing.

BT’s deal with Ofcom over the future of this country’s broadband infrastructure can satisfy no one but the shareholders – who will still own both companies even after they have been legally separated. It’s hard to see how this constitutes meaningful separation. BT will still harvest all the profits, and still has a veto over the appointment of a chief executive. If ever the monopoly is floated on the stock exchange, it is BT that will profit. The taxpayer, meanwhile, is stuck with the pensions liabilities of both companies if there is any shortfall. If something of such vital national importance is to be privatised, there needs to be real competition, as there has been in the provision of mobile phone networks, and the kind of regulation that will ensure that this actually happens. Without either, this deal is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, giving the appearance of motion while changing nothing important.

This matters because the various technologies of the internet have in fact now become as essential (and, in normal times, as little interesting) as mains water or electricity. They are forgotten until their sudden absence reminds us how much we depend on them. It is hard and getting harder to participate in society without them. This is something that goes much deeper than the obvious compulsion to remain in close touch with a telephone or on social media. Shopping and banking are increasingly expensive for the minority who can’t afford to do them online. Just as with the last century’s spread of car-ownership and supermarket shopping, greater opportunities and convenience for the majority who can take advantage of them go hand in hand with an absolute loss of both for the minority. Fairness, as well as economic efficiency, demands that the government sees this as a genuine priority.

Access to broadband is only the most salient part of a much wider story, which is the way in which digital technology has almost vanished as a distinct subject because it is now so ubiquitous. Almost any story in this paper, from politics and economics to culture, sport and media, could be rewritten as a story about the technology that enables it today. Such a world needs its physical foundations built out properly. The Ofcom deal does little to that end.

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