The COVID crisis shows Scotland requires constant connectivity

Craig Anderson shows how the CWU union takes a class position on communication.

The COVID pandemic has changed how we look at home and work, and how we look out into the world. Millions of workers have had to get to grips with working at home and shopping from home, whilst of students, pupils and teachers around the country have had to adapt to learning remotely – and all of this relying on a telecoms network which, in 2021 is still overwhelmingly delivered across copper wires.

The pandemic should have taught our governments much. Not since the Second World War has the power of the state to make or break the economy and the lives of millions been more obviously displayed, but less than two years ago, that perhaps was not so clear.

UK government ministers now overseeing massive state intervention in the economy were amongst those in politics and the media to write-off the joint Labour Party and CWU plan for free, publicly-owned full fibre broadband and the investment to deliver it as ‘broadband communism’. The joke is now on them as they are left scratching their heads and wondering how to deliver education remotely to low-income households. As the Scottish Government has discovered, buying tens of thousands of devices does not cut it if they have nothing to plug into – perhaps, this is why so many still sit in storage.

For all the Scottish Government’s protestations of £579m investment in broadband, it continues to miss its own targets, lags behind the UK as a whole on full-fibre – and the UK figure is pathetic by world standards. Whilst Scotland has 18.4% full-fibre rollout, countries such as Singapore, Korea and Canada are in the region of 90%. The Full Fibre Charter championed by Paul Wheelhouse fails to make any serious demands of operators to tackle the digital divide, and has only three operators on board.

Lessons are there to be learned. An early lead in fibre optics use and manufacture was squandered by privatisation, short-termism, and disinvestment in the early 1980s, and our economy is still paying the price. A familiar tale for comrades in other privatised industries.

Recent research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) estimated that full fibre rollout by 2025 could create as many as 40,000 jobs in Scotland, adding billions to the economy in its construction and its long-term effects. The case for this investment is unanswerable in economic terms, but for Scotland with its dispersed population and falling rural populations, this investment could provide more than just the usual tangibles. Connected communities can become more sustainable and reverse the drain of young people to the cities. There is even the oft forgotten knock-on effect of improvements to our notoriously patchy mobile signals outside of the central belt.

Whatever the geographical divides though, the class divide pervades all. The digital divide runs through every community in the land. According to a recent Citizens’ Advice survey, only 40% of those in deprived areas regularly use the internet, and 20% never access it at all. Perhaps, this should not surprise us. We live in a society where access to food, shelter and care are heavily dependent on the size of our wallets, and it is equally so in the digital world. If many of our citizens cannot put food on the table, it could be easy to dismiss the importance of broadband in this context. But government does not need to choose between them. It has the power to resolve both crises, but only with the political will and a determination to challenge the present, failed system.

Like so many other privatised industries, telecommunications is reliant on government subsidy to renew and rebuild infrastructure. Pledges to spend from £5bn from the UK and £579m from the Scottish governments are unclear in terms of where one begins and one ends, but they at least acknowledge the need for the investment, and it should all be welcomed with a demand for more, as the STUC rightly does. The short-term economic case for investment as stimulus is obvious, and the Scottish Government must break its silence and make some demands of its own – it’s time to see the colour of the UK government’s money, it’s time for the pledge to not only be honoured but accelerated in Scotland; with the challenges of geography and deprivation we face, the case makes itself.

The power of government over infrastructure that is so essential to the present and future of our economy and communities must be greater than the power to sign a cheque though. With only three signatories to the meagre asks of the Scottish government’s Full Fibre Charter, it surely is clear that a more robust approach is required.

This is why now the CWU believes that the next Scottish Government should be prioritising investment not only in improving Scotland’s infrastructure but also in looking to the communication sector as a source of economic recovery post COVID-19. Scotland could be a manufacturing and service provider out with our own country. The government should be focusing on research facilities, fibre optic manufacturing, server manufacturing and cyber security. The creation of highly skilled jobs should be a priority to end the current race to the bottom we are currently experiencing. Scotland could be a trusted leader in a market where numerous others are suspected of cyber interference.

Connectivity will always be required and will only develop in the future. Therefore, the Scottish Government should see the communications sector as a priority for investment in parallel with significant investment and improvements in Scotland’s own network. With a proper industrial strategy, Scotland can be a leading digital nation in the future and this is how we truly build back better.

Craig Anderson is the CWU communications union Scotland regional secretary