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23 May 2023

No one should be forced to go without broadband in modern Britain

The cancellation of broadband by a million people is another sign of the UK’s economic and social decline.

By James Meadway

Citizens’ Advice research showing that up to a million people have cancelled their broadband in the past year is a further grim example of how much social damage the cost-of-living crisis is inflicting and how badly this country is failing. Internet access is essential for life in a modern society; we are failing as an economy if we don’t guarantee it.

It’s not hard to see how the financial pressures on people have accumulated. Energy prices surged last year and even with expected reductions in the price cap will remain 60 per cent higher for households than 18 months ago. Food prices have risen by 19.2 per cent over the last year, their fastest pace for 45 years. Into the middle of this inflationary surge, Britain’s broadband providers, dominated by just three major companies, have increased their prices by up to 14 per cent – on top of 9-10 per cent increases last year.

These higher costs were already having an effect. Ofcom’s affordability survey found that three in ten households reported difficulties in paying for broadband even before the latest price hike. Given a choice between remaining socially active and being able to eat, of course people will prioritise. Some may be able to soften the blow with mobile internet access. But how pathetic that in the sixth largest economy in the world we should be forcing people to make this kind of choice.

The country has moved online in the last two decades, with household internet access rising from 57 per cent in 2006 to 96 per cent by 2020 according to the Office for National Statistics. The pandemic reinforced just how essential reliable internet access is as lockdowns were imposed and working from home became the norm – at its peak – for half the country. Online retail now accounts for more than a quarter of all sales, having doubled its share in less than a decade. Forty per cent of people worked from home at least some of the time from September 2022 to January 2023. Fifty-seven million people, 85 per cent of the population, used at least one social media platform in January, with more than half saying they were using it to keep in touch with friends and family. Facebook alone is used by two thirds of the population. For all the many and varied problems with life online, it is how almost all of us spend at least part of our time.

Cutting people off from this life isn’t depriving them of some luxury or a little treat. It’s denying them the right to participate in the same world as everyone else. And it’s a sign of Britain’s social and economic decline that we are in retreat from a developed world lifestyle – the 2023 equivalent of deciding that some people simply shouldn’t have indoor toilets or running water. Or, as we have decided for over a million food bank users, be able to afford to eat.

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[See also: There is no chance the government will regulate AI]

The US economist Larry Summers described the UK last year as a “submerging” economy, the opposite to a fast-growing emerging market. The food banks, the creaking health system, the unsafe school buildings, the crumbling infrastructure, the rivers flooded with sewage, the casual exclusion of a million people from modern life: Summers may be unkind, but he has a point. And everyone who lives in the UK knows it.

Yet the extraordinary thing is that much of our political class appears to simply accept this as a necessary state of affairs, their passivity and listlessness framed as sophistication. The Independent commentator John Rentoul can be found on Twitter – which has 19 million active UK users – scoffing at the idea that we could spend money to “upgrade our sewage system”. More seriously, both Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have recently sought to play down expectations that a Labour government might do much to fix any of this. The Treasury-brained belief that it is better to swim in sewage than to borrow money has unfortunately gripped the main opposition party.

The result, across our governing institutions, is a cloying attachment to half-measures, at best. For example, the telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has been cajoling broadband providers to offer “social tariffs” to benefit claimants, offering them basic internet access at a reduced rate. But its own figures suggest take up has been dismal, with just 5 per cent of eligible households making use of the offer. Worse, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown, four in ten of the households in the poorest fifth of the population are not receiving any of the available means-tested benefits – either because they have been deemed ineligible, have fallen foul of the stringent income and savings tests, or in some cases are simply unaware of what they are entitled to. If they aren’t claiming a benefit, they won’t be able to claim a broadband social tariff. It’s likely that many of these 2.6 million people will be among those forced to abandon internet access.

At the 2019 general election Labour proposed a clear and affordable solution to the problem by offering to treat broadband as an essential public service and charge it at the socially efficient price – which is zero. Howled at by the sensibles of the political class at the time, the policy would have meant considerable savings for households today. And we would not be slowly unwinding decades of digital progress.

[See also: The age of ambient information]

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