10 for 10: Why modern Britain needs a Universal Digital Standards Bill
It is deeply wrong that parliament is going on holiday for 10 weeks at a time of national crisis and peril, as I argue here. So what should the government be bringing to parliament instead of a 10-week holiday? I will be publishing detailed proposals for 10 pieces of legislation that would answer the needs of the millions who are left out and left behind in today’s Britain. Number two in this series is a Universal Digital Standards Bill, to give everyone in the UK that same access to high quality digital infrastructure.
The inequalities and disparities that plague the UK were an animating cause of the vote for Brexit in 2016. As I wrote last week, whilst calling for a Northern Ireland Equality Bill, some of these are inequalities of rights. But there are also profound gaps in our access to crucial infrastructure, which hold parts of this country back, drive down productivity and cause isolation and alienation in many communities. Later in this series, I will argue for a Northern Powerhouse Action Bill, to tackle the lack of investment in transport infrastructure in Northern England but we also need to ensure that our digital infrastructure is being updated and improved rapidly and fairly. It is appalling that just a few miles outside of central London it can be impossible to get a basic 3G signal. And it is a source of national embarrassment that the UK has slipped to 35th place in an annual league table of global broadband speeds, putting us in the bottom third of EU countries and below the likes of Madagascar and Bulgaria. We need co-ordinated action, now.
What should this Bill mandate? First, it must establish leading internet standards: The UK is falling far behind other European nations like France on rolling out full fibre and the Government’s current plans are completely unambitious: The 2025 target will probably be achieved with existing commercial investment and support, while the 2033 aspiration is currently very vague and has no solid strategy or funding behind it. We need a bold, ambitious and legally binding set of internet standards which we can then enforce across the board – wherever in the country consumers and businesses are based.
This strategy has to be coordinated across Government Departments involved with local government, planning, transport and utilities and entail more collaboration between the industry’s big players, such as BT Openreach and Virgin Media, and the altnets, to enable a future-proof digital infrastructure to be built quickly. This requires a single, responsible individual who can be held accountable for failure and be empowered to achieve success. The Bill should therefore create a new position of Digital Standards Commissioner to drive co-ordination, set targets and regulate failure out of the system.
Finally, we need better transparency over speeds so that consumers can see whether their services meet their universal digital standards or not. Providers should be obligated to publish real time, accurate information on speeds so that consumers and local authorities can see for themselves if they are getting the service they need and deserve.
On my tour of the 100 most Leave voting areas of the UK I saw that so often voters felt left out and left behind – in many such communities, not a lot works. We cannot afford to continue falling behind as a country – in these areas most dramatically – when it comes to digital standards. We need new, bold targets. We need a Digital Standards Commissioner to hold feet to the fire. And we need transparency so that consumers can fight back against sub-standard speeds and services.