By Henry Badger
Internet access is not a resource that should be exploited or operated by private enterprises for profit – rather, broadband is a public good that should be recognised as a fundamental human right. The United Kingdom needs to guarantee universal broadband access to every household across Britain, effectively fostering a new cherished public institution that ensures jobs, equitable educational opportunities and increased productivity. This progressive policy is one of the next logical steps the government can take to alleviate inequalities across the country, and pave the way for a more inclusive society.
Universal internet coverage is not a novel idea. In fact, the 2016 UN General Assembly declared that internet access should be a human right, and the 2019 Labour Party manifesto committed to providing “full-fibre broadband free to everybody in every home”. These policy commitments emphasised the long-term benefits, including tackling regional income inequalities, providing thousands of new jobs for the UK economy through infrastructure investment and offering financial savings of, on average, £30/month per British household. Paying for the plan will be executed through taxing major technology corporations, such as Facebook and Amazon, who shamelessly dodged corporation taxes in 2020 despite receiving €44bn in European revenues. Unsurprisingly, Conservative politicians and business leaders, such as Boris Johnson and BT chief network architect Neil McRae, have condemned these internet-for-all proposals as “broadband communism”.
I believe that not only is internet access essential for engaging with secondary and higher education, but also for navigating through the increasingly competitive job market. A recent study by Ofcom determined that between 1 and 1.8 million children do not have access to a laptop or tablet at home. Combined with the Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately affecting the most economically vulnerable, the importance of tackling income inequality is of utmost governmental importance. By alleviating some of the barriers to education and employment, investing in broadband infrastructure has the potential to alleviate the digital gap for those citizens who have been ‘left behind’ by the rapid digitisation of the economy.
Universal coverage for all is also necessary due to the private industry’s failure at managing the existing broadband network. Recent research commissioned by the government determined that current broadband giants are neglecting nearly a quarter of the UK’s household market, by “ignoring rural areas that they consider unprofitable”. This makes sense: why would BT invest in laborious, expensive broadband networks in the Scottish Highlands when significantly more money can be captured in more densely populated cities? In addition, high barriers of entry and little to no regulations have made the UK broadband market an oligopoly of four providers, the largest being BT with a 34% market share. Privatisation has also accomplished little in terms of lower, more competitive prices: the UK ranks 21st out of 29 in Europe in terms of cost-per-megabit. Not only is the current model not fostering competition, but over ten million customers have also been misled into paying more than required for their internet. Ofcom has reported that the millions of customers are ‘sleepers’ – unaware of when their contract ends, this results in overpaying.
The implementation of a nationalised, internet-for-all strategy will establish a cherished British institution for generations to come, much like the National Health Service. During Attlee’s 1945 Labour government, the founding of the NHS was initially not actively embraced. Prominent Tory MPs criticised the radical proposal for its “socialist tyranny” and “Hitlerian coercion”. Fast forward to 2021 and the National Health Service is one of Britain’s finest institutions – consistently considered one of the world’s best and most efficient health care systems. The policy of internet access for all will similarly complement Britain’s national health institution, and provide every household with a fast, stable and enduring broadband network for free. According to a 2019 YouGov poll, six in ten people support free broadband, with only 22% unilaterally opposed. With majority public support, the next logical step is action.
As the United Kingdom seeks to recover from endless governmental pandemic response failures, the growing inequality gap and the traumatic exit from the European Union, the country will need to embrace radical, generational policy to foster a more inclusive and equitable post-Covid future. Internet access for all will provide citizens with a new national institution which can redistribute some of this societal inequity, revitalise jobs, and rebuild an inclusive Britain for everyone.