UK’s Labour vows free broadband for all by re-nationalising some of BT

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s opposition Labour Party said it would unveil plans on Friday to provide free ‘full-fiber’ broadband across the country by creating a ‘British Broadband’ public service, formed by bringing parts of telecoms provider BT back into state ownership.

FILE PHOTO: Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives to attend the National Service of Remembrance, on Remembrance Sunday, at The Cenotaph in Westminster, London, Britain, November 10, 2019. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Labour said if it wins a Dec. 12 election it would carry out a massive upgrade of Britain’s internet infrastructure, starting by targeting rural and remote communities and some inner city areas with the worst broadband access.

It said the plan would be paid for using its Green Transformation fund and by taxes on tech firms such as Alphabet’s Google, Amazon and Facebook.

To carry out its proposal, Labour said it would nationalize parts of BT, the country’s biggest broadband and mobile phone provider. That would include its digital network arm Openreach, as well as parts of BT Technology, BT Enterprise and BT Consumer.

“It’s time to make the very fastest full-fiber broadband free to everybody, in every home in every corner of the country,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will say in a speech, according to an extract released by the party.

“By creating British Broadband as a public service, we will lead the world in using public investment to transform our country, reduce people’s monthly bills, boost our economy and improve people’s quality of life.”

A BT spokesman said in an emailed statement that rolling out full-fiber broadband and 5G across Britain should be a top political priority. He did not specifically address Labour’s nationalization plan.

“Whatever the result of the election, we’d encourage the next government to work with all parts of the industry to achieve that,” the spokesman said.

Currently, less than 10% of British premises have access to full-fiber broadband – also called fiber to the premises, where fiber optic cable instead of copper is used to connect homes to the network. Labour said it would roll out the free broadband to all individuals and businesses by 2030, providing it to at least 15 million to 18 million premises within five years.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already promised to roll out full-fiber broadband to all homes by 2025 with an investment of 5 billion pounds ($6.40 billion) if his Conservatives, who are leading in the opinion polls, win the election.

BT’s Chief Executive Philip Jansen said last month that Johnson’s timescale would be extremely difficult to achieve and said the company would need the government and the regulator to create conditions that would allow it to make a fair return.

The company, which was privatized by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1984, said it could fund the 25 billion to 30 billion pound cost of building a full-fiber network by issuing debt, reallocating capex, disposing assets, and by cutting its dividend.

Under its plans, Labour said there would be a one-off capital cost of 15.3 billion pounds to deliver the full-fiber network, on top of the 5 billion already promised by Johnson.

It said the cost of nationalizing parts of BT would be set by parliament and paid for by swapping bonds for shares.

Reporting by Michael Holden, additional reporting by Paul Sandle and Aishwarya Nair; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Jane Wardell

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