Predictions of the death of the Internet seem premature, though not wholly implausible. There is no doubt that it constitutes a heavy drain on energy supplies but it also undoubtedly saves energy in facilitating transactions online that reduce the need to travel. A full energy ‘balance sheet’ of the existing and potential costs and benefits isn’t easy to calculate. It’s something to watch for closely in the years ahead. One thing seems certain: that as technology matures and markets saturate, so the super-profits that accrue to pioneers fall away, the pressure to monetise what was once free increases, and the pressure for State control or subsidy intensifies.
Meanwhile, as more and more essentials migrate online, rural broadband is becoming an acknowledged necessity. One that can only be fully delivered through subsidy. And why not? It makes commercial sense for businessfolk to have the same communications abilities wherever they are at the time, and no London commuter whose rail fares are subsidised out of the fuel tax paid by the residents of rural Wessex should begrudge it either.
In September the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) produced a scathing report on the procurement process for the roll-out of rural broadband. BT won all 26 contracts, worth £1.2 billion of public money. BT was the only bidder to stay in the process. But was BT, as a quasi-monopoly, also the only supplier really capable of doing so? Could it therefore name its own price?
There was no in-house bid that could have reduced the cost to the taxpayer. Could the infrastructure ministry of a self-governing Wessex have done a better job for us? We’d certainly like to think so and it’s a shame that there isn’t one to test the theory. Interestingly, Post Office Telephones were the first UK government department to set up a permanent regional structure, in 1934. Interestingly too, the PAC Chair, Margaret Hodge, commented on the county-based contracts that “If you (the government) had devised it differently, had bigger areas for the contracts so you could spread your costs more, allowed different technologies to be used and insisted on a 100% coverage, we would have found other people in the game and I bet we would have spent less of the taxpayers’ money.”
Our State is now almost uniquely hollowed-out and in need of radical renewal. The USA, supposedly the home of tooth-and-claw capitalism, has a much larger public sector, in terms of productive industry, however basic its social welfare provision is in comparison to ours. Constitutional rights stand in the way of a Reagan or a Bush ordering states or municipalities to shed community assets.
Texans collectively own their electricity grid; we don’t. The State of Nebraska prides itself on having a 100% publicly-owned power supply; ours prides itself on having 0% in its ownership and becoming dependent on Chinese Communists. Which of these societies has its priorities right, bearing in mind that capitalism is a fair weather philosophy, whose top practitioners all too easily create crises and then run off with the money extracted? Which is best placed to be resilient to future challenges?