BritConnect – Will it make it off the launch pad? [Op-Ed]

The Secretary of State for Business and Economic Development has announced plans for BritConnect. If it happens it will represent a sweeping investment into both our nation’s telecom’s infrastructure and the nation’s space agency in order to blast satellites into orbit and propel our connectivity into the future. All of this through 648 satellites launched to orbit our planet, at great cost to the British taxpayer.

Through the lens of the government’s nationalisation campaign this endeavour represents a potential financial blackhole for the British public, certain to exceed estimated costs of £500 million.

Typical weather satellite can cost in the region of £209 million, a typical military grade satellite can cost another £100 million on top of that. The UK Military’s current Skynet 6 R&D programme is estimated to be on £6 billion. The concealed Zircon satellite project, secretly developed by GCHQ specifically for signals intelligence in the 1980’s was estimated to cost £500 million before it was cancelled, equivalent to £1.5 billion in 2019. The European Space Agency estimates the baseline total cost for a three-unit nano-satellite mission starts at £500 000. Reflect on those sums, and then look towards the £500 million being invested by the UK Government for 648 satellites. Remember that rocket fuel and space flight make for excellent television, but often sketchy investment for your money – space is the high risk, high reward, anything can happen table. If the government is refusing to seek input from the private sector, where will it source the inevitable shortfall to get this telecom’s infrastructure into orbit? Are the government’s plans financially credible, or are they a work of science fiction?

BritConnects next challenge will be retaining an established and skilled workforce of telecom’s engineers and our own version of the rocket scientist as those highly skilled, highly paid roles look towards foreign opportunities with nationalisation on the horizon.

The Department for Business and Economic Developments concludes there is real potential for the UK to export BritConnect in competition with the established Huawei – sponsored by the Chinese government – to recoup the costs, and reestablish our global position. It is true that China has employed that company to expand it’s interests and influence across the globe.

Huawei itself is a company with serious security concerns for western democracies, but that has weathered much sanction pressure, and still today is renowned for being competitive across the telecom’s market. It has made major leaps. The Chinese government has consistently indicated that it has no affiliation with Huawei, but it is evident that a partnership between that government and the telecom’s giant exists at an undisclosed level. The British government hopes it can provide a viable alternative without the innovation, enterprise and financial nuance of the private sector. Yet China itself doesn’t identify Huawei as a state instrument, but as a private sector company. This can’t even be an argument for the success of state controlled business. To compete with China, and to market BritConnect well it will need the private sector.

The blackhole in the finances is only dwarfed by the risk to democracy itself.

With wider security concerns about national infrastructure and Huawei, there has never been more scrutiny in the western world about telecommunications infrastructure. Whilst the Secretary of State has made much about what BritConnect’s impact ultimately might be on the world as a non-authoritarian alternative, locking the private sector out of this vital industry opens up the potential for abuse. Private sector involvement is an essential characteristic of freedom of speech. If this was the media industry, we would have grave concerns that the government was clawing into the essential infrastructure by which it functions with no private sector involvement. Not only is BritConnect unaffordable without private sector involvement, it’s undemocratic without accountability beyond government.

The prospects of a state owned, state operated, and state accountable BritConnect means that we step closer to models adopted by Russia and China than those employed by our allies in North America and Europe. Russia and China are known for censoring the thoughts of their own people, and employing their telecom’s infrastructure as a tool to that end. Is it potentially naive of the government to believe that Britconnect does not have the potential to be misused by future governments of varying political views?

The Secretary of State has already emphasised that state security apparatus will have greater capabilities thanks to BritConnect, and the pillar he leans upon in advocating the policy is one of trust. To trust his government to provide non-restricted, non-monitored access to the internet. One wonders how much the Russians and Chinese employed the ‘trust us’ argument when they launched their state owned, state operated, and state accountable telecom’s networks. Did they too – as our Secretary of State has emphasised with loss of signals intelligence capabilities after leaving Europe – also lean on issues of security and defence to implement a state controlled network?

I am not suggesting the government should step back and have no involvement in the future development of the nation’s telecom’s infrastructure, but it cannot be the sole participant of the enterprise. The private sector is a necessary partner to ensure this is both affordable and effective.

This latest policy direction by the government invites the question – Will the Secretary of States proposed BritConnect make it off the launch pad?