- 5 Jan 09, 15:21 GMT
So Gordon Brown's plan to create 100,000 jobs might well involve massive public investment in next-generation broadband. The Prime Minister told the Observer that such a project could be the modern equivalent of the huge programme of public works undertaken by the Roosevelt administration as it tried to lift the USA out of the depression in the 1930s. Here's the key quote:
"When we talk about the roads and the bridges and the railways that were built in previous times - and those were anti-recession measures taken to help people through difficult times - you could [by comparison] talk about the digital infrastructure and that form of communications revolution at a period when we want to stimulate the economy. It's a very important thing."
It may be very important, but what is far from clear is just how much public money for a new fast broadband network the PM is talking about - and who would get it.
There is now widespread agreement that the route to a high-speed, future-proof network is through fibre - and that means putting fibre-optic cables right into homes across Britain. The cost? Well it depends who you believe, but the Broadband Stakeholder Group reckoned it could be as much as £29 billion.
There are plenty of small-scale fibre projects up and running - from plans to run fibre through the sewers to community broadband groups which are trying to make sure remote parts of Britain are not left out. Perhaps they will find it easier to get grants.
But it looks as though there are only two companies with the scale to take a fibre network right across the UK - BT and the cable firm Vigin Media. Here is where any public sector involvement gets devilishly tricky. I am sure BT and Virgin would be very happy to accept a few billion from the government, but BT in particular might well prefer another option - light-touch regulation. After all, the firm has already hinted that it would be happy to pour billions into a next-generation network if only Ofcom would be somewhat more relaxed about letting it make a return on that investment. BT's rivals, however, will be warning against the dangers of using government money to give even more muscle to the biggest player in the market.
Then there is the fact that once you declare that the "digital infrastructure" is a vital public service, everyone will want an equal stake in it. When broadband is a purely commercial service, companies can argue that they would love to deliver it to every nook and cranny in Britain - but their shareholders won't stand for it. Once the public sector is involved, every household may come to see fast broadband - like free healthcare - as a right, not a privilege. In short, then, finding the public money to pump into fast broadband might be the easy bit. Designing the pumping mechanism will be a lot harder.
Meanwhile, a cautionary tale about promises of publicy-funded broadband. I'm writing this in San Francisco, where I'm covering Macworld. As a broadband addict, keen to update my status on various social networks and send the odd blog post, I've been roaming the streets in search of wifi. It is less easily available and more expensive in this high-tech city than you might think. San Francisco's mayor came up with a plan back in 2004 to provide free wifi to the whole city. But, after a lot of ins and outs, that plan was scrapped in 2007 amid doubts about its financial viability. So the Prime Minister might do worse than give Mayor Gavin Newsom a call to see if he has any tips on the economics of public broadband.
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