Even Boris Johnson’s most ardent admirers in the Conservative Party, who now apparently include the neophiliac former broadband minister Matt Hancock, would concede that he is not a technological visionary. Here, in the age of the network, we have a prospective prime minister who would be more at home in the age of Plutarch.
Perhaps, therefore, we should not be too harsh on Johnson and his undeliverable pledge to connect every home in Britain to full-fibre broadband by 2025. His preference for myth over reality may merely be an artefact of a classical education. Johnson’s broadband fable must be the involuntary outburst of a frontal lobe permanently intoxicated by too many late nights marvelling at Aesop.
His claim that ubiquitous full-fibre coverage is possible in “five years at the outside” is obviously false to anyone with a passing familiarity with the scale of the challenge. Johnson surely would not turn to such crude dishonesty even at this dramatic stage in his long pursuit of power. His hero’s journey is lurching toward tragedy of either the individual or national variety. This cannot be the time for blatantly misleading his supporters, can it?
Maybe instead Johnson is just badly advised, as he clearly was in the recent debate over the new European copyright directive. He proclaimed it was “a classic EU law to help the rich and powerful” and “terrible for the internet”.
The invocation of “the internet”, as if a network of computers is a person, an industry or even a market worthy of defence by the state was a giveaway. In this context “the internet” is in fact a useful proxy for Google, which has lobbied relentlessly to preserve its ability to profit from copyright material without paying creators.
Google surrogates have convinced large sections of the Right, keen to condemn anything involving the EU, that restoring the intellectual property rights of the individual online would somehow mean the death of digital freedom.
Johnson thus took the side of one of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations on the planet against British musicians, writers and filmmakers to oppose laws that a Conservative government, of which he was a senior member, had played a central role in drafting. Perhaps Hancock, who cheered the copyright directive along as it made its way onto statute, can explain this to him now they are allied. There’s an old story involving a wooden horse that might help.
All that said, Johnson is correct to say Britain’s digital infrastructure is a disgrace and must improve as quickly as possible, everywhere. Full fibre coverage of 7pc, equivalent to about two million homes, is worse than any big European economy.
Authorship of this lamentable condition has been a team effort. BT, Ofcom, the Government, the City, local councils and the rest of the broadband industry have all been obstacles to progress at one time or another. This newspaper has campaigned for years for full-fibre rollout in preference to various stop-gap policies and technologies. Now we have an official target of 15 million homes by 2025. This, says Johnson, is “laughably unambitious”.
He is wrong. There are about 25 million households to go. At the current rate of 20,000 per week it would take approximately 24 years to reach full coverage. To build 15 million full-fibre lines by 2025, BT’s network unit Openreach will already need to more than double its pace. To hit Johnson’s goal it would need to go nearly five times as fast.
Frankly that is not going to happen, however deep the untapped well of optimism on which he claims to draw. With almost full employment and less access to foreign workers, Britain does not have the manpower to undertake such a feat of turbocharged civil engineering in competition with HS2, the third runway at Heathrow (which Johnson apparently no longer opposes) and lots of other big projects.
Even accounting for the changes to planning red tape and the tax treatment of full-fibre investment hinted at in Johnson’s proposal, the best Britain could hope for by 2025 is perhaps 20 million lines, or more than two-thirds. That is a prize worth pursuing and would be a genuine achievement for any government. But it is not what is promised.
You can get a sense of how seriously Johnson’s pledge is taken with a glance at the BT share price. After the hot favourite to become PM drives a chariot through an industry calling for revolution, some reaction might be expected. Instead the shares moved up just 0.6pc, on lower than average trading volumes. Stock markets can shrug, it turns out.
If Johnson is to also meet his other pledge - that the one in ten most rural homes will be prioritised - he will need to find many billions in subsidies. The most recent official assessment found up to £5bn would be needed to deliver full-fibre to them by 2033. Under Johnson’s accelerated schedule the costs can only be higher.
By 2025 such a discussion is quite likely to have been made redundant by 5G wireless broadband, which is expected to offer most of the benefits of full-fibre in the countryside without such costly taxpayer support.
It all poses the troubling question of why Johnson would make these promises at all. Given we have ruled out dishonest electioneering, only he knows the real truth. But rather like Secundus the Silent, one of the great cynics of ancient Athens, he’s not really talking.