dot.communism: Market narrows access to Broadband

In the UK around 39 per cent of households have an internet connection and the number going online is actually falling for the first time. This is bad news for those businesses that are still trying to make money on the web. One of the solutions being pushed by business and government is the expansion of broadband access to the web. Hardly a week goes by when we are not subjected to Wendy Alexander's determined stare on Reporting Scotland as she announces another supposed breakthrough in broadband provision. Yet as Alister Black explains, this has predictably proved to be another example of the failure of the 'market' to deliver.

What is Broadband?

Put simply, Broadband means faster internet access. A standard modem access via phone lines will give you a connection speed of 56 kbps (kilobytes per second), actually usually slower depending on a number of factors, including the phone line used, the speed of the computer's processor, etc. Broadband in the UK can give you access speeds of up to 512 kbps (note the ' up to ', average connection speeds tend to be lower). Connections are via cable or ADSL lines.

This means that you can download large files from the internet in much shorter spaces of times. So you can download the latest version of a particular piece of software, or the latest web browser, document or mp3 in seconds rather than minutes, without being subject to frustrating timeouts and crashes.

Business obviously hopes to make a lot of money out of this process and business organisations like the British Chamber of Commerce have been very critical of government failures to expand broadband usage. However broadband access also has beneficial effects for society. Countries like Norway and Sweden have positively encouraged broadband access for both cities and isolated communities who need to have quick and reliable communication. One Norwegian village is now pioneering an experiment in 'wireless' internet access. This has been seen as a key strategic task, for rural areas especially, and one which the market cannot deliver on.

Currently out of 10 million UK homes online, 100 000 use ADSL and 90 000 use cable, a fairly small percentage of total households and lower than many other European countries. Currently Britain is 21st in the world table of broadband access with Sweden top on around 13.8 per cent broadband usage.

The market fails to deliver

One of the main problems with this is that large parts of the country simply can't get broadband access. Up to 40 per cent of the country has no access to ADSL. British Telecom is a private monopoly whom many accuse of blocking access to phone lines and other technologies used to implement broadband. BT have no commercial interest in expanding the access to broadband via competitor companies like NTL; and despite government targets, deadlines, commands and proclamations they are obstructing their competition every step of the way. The other factor is the price. Broadband access in the UK costs around £40 a month, compared with £37 a month in France, £31 a month in Germany and £32 a month in the USA.

Some see the future as bringing new types of inequality, based on the market's failure to provide access to the means of communication. One user described living in an area without broadband access as "like living in a place with no roads or trains", with all the economic and social consequences that implies. Poor and rural areas will be left behind, and that means less jobs and more poverty.

Clearly the taking back into democratic social ownership of the telecommunications industry would enormously improve broadband internet and all forms of communication for people in Britain. But an understanding of the popular democratic potential of this type of access is just as important. The democratic planning of the resources of society will be made much easier with such forms of communication.

It may seem a side issue for the left, but in the near future we will need to start putting forward demands for access to broadband internet, in the same way we include transport and roads in a socialist programme.