The role of BT in providing the digital backbone for our nation is currently in the public spotlight as Grant Shapps has published a report into the state of Internet access in the UK. The report recommends that BT is forced to sell off its infrastructure business OpenReach
to encourage more competition and a better service for every internet user and for the benefit of the UK economy.
The thing is, there are low level communications infrastructures that only really work as state-managed monopolies. The road network. The rail network. Terrestrial broadcast networks. Telephony and data.
Now for all of the above (with the exception of telephony and data), there are private companies providing services on a contracted basis to manage and maintain the infrastructure. But they are monopolies that need to be run sensibly as monopolies, under state supervision.
The telecoms and data network for me seems to be the perfect example of what should be operated as Government as a Platform, the term coined by Tim o’Reilly in his wonderful essay of the same name, and then woefully abused by the Ministry of Silly beards for the past few years.
O’Reilly in fact used the road network as an exemplar of Government as a Platform. Investment made in infrastructure by the state that
created capabilities that enrich the possibilities for subsequent private sector investment.
Build the platforms, and on top of those platforms we can build businesses and livelihoods of value. Put the platforms into the private sector driven by profit and we all get screwed (see, for example, the experience of Railtrack).
This, though, is a flight of fancy. We have ideologues in power, and the idea of the nationalisation of our communications infrastructure by the current administration is beyond reasonable thought. Which is a shame because we’ll inevitably have to bail it out at some point in the future when it’s realised that competition and monopolies are mutually exclusive things.