Freshly elected as UK’s next PM, Boris Johnson pledges full fiber broadband bonanza

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Get ready for a British Trump: The UK will shortly have a new prime minister after the Conservative Party membership overwhelmingly voted to elect Boris Johnson as their new party leader, passing over his sole rival for the post, Jeremy Hunt.

Johnson received 92,135 votes, a full 45,497 more than Hunt.

He replaces Theresa May who announced she would step down in May after failing to achieve backing from parliament for her EU withdrawal deal — the second PM to be toppled by Brexit in just under three years.

Whether Johnson can outlast even May’s brief tenure very much remains to be seen.

The former journalist and ex mayor of London has made a political success story of clowning around in public and cracking often self-deprecating jokes that encourage a perception of joviality and good humor, while simultaneously pressing his personal ambition behind the scenes and ruthlessly gunning for the highest office in the land — which was his motivation for switching to back Brexit in the first place.

The clown mask enables the political manoeuvering, as it were.

How the usual Johnson ‘circus’ will translate into firm policy positions is something of an open question at this stage, though early indications suggest he’s intending an infrastructure spending spree — to feed the popularity contest that has, after all, swept him to power.

Albeit how any such public spending bonanza will be funded is anyone’s guess at this stage. One of his few leadership pledges was an income tax cut for high earners — which would rather shrink the Treasury’s coffers by billions than expand it…

He has also implied he might withhold the UK’s exit payment to the EU — a multi-billion sum that’s intended to cover the country’s existing commitments as it leaves the bloc.

But if you’re simultaneously hoping to ink a trade deal with the very same neighbors you’re denying payment to that would seem a rather self-defeating and short-term strategy, both at home and abroad.

Giving his Conservative leadership acceptance speech this afternoon there was little of policy substance on show from Johnson. In his usual showman style, he preferred to stroke sitting Tory egos with a confection of positive projections and feel-good sentiments — principally about ‘getting brexit done’ (though nothing on how he will actually get it done).

He also dropped a few enthusiastic words vis-a-vis infrastructure, education and broadband — going longest on the latter by claiming that “fantastic full fiber broadband” would be “sprouting in every household”, before falling back on the safe and fuzzy ground of non-specific cheerleading of party and country.

On the surface, the fiber broadband pledge looks like a rinse and repeat of an existing government policy — announced in last year’s digital strategy — to put all UK households in reach of fibre to the premise (FTTP) by 2033.

Though the government had not committed to paying the estimated £30BN to fund a full FTTP rollout, focusing on regulatory tweaks to encourage the market to cover the majority of the country, and then planning to target public cash at the tricky last fifth.

But penning his regular column in the Telegraph newspaper last month, Johnson dubbed the 2033 target “laughably unambitious“, writing that: “If we want to unite our country and our society, we should commit now to delivering full fibre to every home in the land not in the mid 2030s — but in five years at the outside.”

So a Boris Johnson-led Tory government’s full fibre target is, seemingly, being brought forward to 2025.

If he really intends for the public purse to bankroll universal FTTP within a five year time-scale it would certainly be transformative — with many rural regions still lagging urban Britain’s high speed access to Internet services, as a result of the business case for a rapid upgrade of these digital slow-lanes not stacking up.

Johnson is also right to identify the digital divide as increasingly problematic given the onward march of commercial technology. (And, indeed, increasingly problematic as more government services get pushed online — which risks widening the inequality gap, though he didn’t really dwell on that.)

However there’s no doubt that pressing fast forward on universal FTTP will entail a much larger bill than the government had budgeted for.

Last year’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review suggested an additional £3BN to £5BN in public funding would be needed to support commercial investment in the final ~10% of areas that would otherwise be overlooked, per the 2033 timeline. It’s anyone’s guess how much more public money will be needed to accelerate the whole broadband project to meet a universal access goal almost a decade quicker, per Johnson’s plan.

Though, as noted above, a full rollout has been costed at £30BN.

Assuming that ceiling wouldn’t need to be raised as a result of increased deployment velocity, the cost of Johnson’s faster fiber ambition could therefore scale spending on this particular infrastructure project 6x more than current government plans. Hence the pressing question of where the public funds will come from?

How much the Johnson push for ‘rural first’ fibre might cost UK consumers is another matter.

He talks in his newspaper column about “stimulating the private sector to get it done”. And if that stimulation includes government agreeing to industry demands to lengthen or even hyper-extend market review periods in order to encourage the private sector to get digging and fast, then it could result in UK consumers being on the hook twice: First by shelling out to lay the fiber in the first place, and then getting price-gouged to use the fibre-powered Internet services they’ve helped pay for.

Of course ‘fiber for all’ makes a great soundbite for PM Johnson to make a play for hearts and minds.

But, as with everything soon set to cross his desk, the devil is in the detail. And, well, clowns aren’t renowned for their grasp of those kinds of things.

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