Should broadband be free to all?

There’s a growing debate around the topic of should broadband be freely provided to every UK household, regardless of income or need

Tuesday, 8 June, 2021

Keen students of post-war British politics wouldn’t have been surprised to see the Labour Party undertaking one of its periodic lurches to the left in recent years.

In 1981, Tony Benn and Austin Healey fought an astonishingly bitter battle for the post of deputy leader, which directly affected the party’s direction (and fortunes) for decades.

Fast forward 35 years, and Jeremy Corbyn attempted to chart the same course with the help of old allies like John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.

Like Benn, Corbyn’s attempts to usher in a Socialist Britain ultimately failed. Yet even so, some of his proposals have continued to resonate through politics and wider society.

One example is Corbyn’s suggestion that broadband should become a free service for the good of the nation, not a paid service provided by companies intent on making a profit.

The question of should broadband be free has been answered in the affirmative by left-wing newspapers like the Morning Star, and in the negative by right-wing magazines like the Spectator.

So what’s being argued over? And should broadband be free to all, regardless of your income or online usage?

For the many, not the few

The primary argument in favour of free broadband – that it’s essential for modern life – has received added impetus following the coronavirus pandemic.

Lockdown has undoubtedly widened the gulf between the poorest families and everyone else, creating even more of a two-tier society.

Millions of children have been unable to access online learning without decent broadband, while many parents have struggled to work from home.

The internet has become essential for buying groceries and household items, communicating with friends and loved ones, and entertaining us through three lockdowns.

As such, broadband is no longer a middle class indulgence, as it was in the 1990s. It’s an essential utility.

Nationalising broadband infrastructure and making it a state-run service akin to the NHS would ensure nobody could ever be ‘too poor’ to access vital digital services.

And while COVID-19 is hopefully in retreat, who knows what future challenges may serve to exacerbate the digital divide?

Unleash Britain’s potential

The idea of free broadband for everyone is undeniably appealing. But of course it’s not free. Every utility costs vast sums of money to develop, supply, maintain and upgrade.

Should broadband be free to everyone, irrespective of their circumstances, millions of households currently able and willing to pay for it would instead receive it free gratis.

This would cost the taxpayer an estimated £13 billion a year, which would be absorbed by the state at the cost of other services, or redistributed back to every household via higher taxes.

The latter would be far more likely. Lockdown has caused numerous businesses to fail, with corporate and personal tax takings dwindling despite unprecedented spending on state support schemes like furlough.

It’s unclear how companies like Virgin Media and Openreach would feel about surrendering infrastructure they’ve spent decades constructing, or how they’d be compensated.

Seizing broadband infrastructure and declaring it a national asset would send a very dangerous message to any private company in any industry about investing in the UK.

Plus, the Utopian dream of fast broadband for all would probably end up rather less appealing in reality.

Modern British history is studded with nationalised industries failing to modernise or innovate like private sector rivals, and falling into irrelevance as a direct consequence.

Broadband is an industry where private innovation is vital to improving infrastructure, especially since the UK already lags behind many developed nations in terms of line speeds.

It could also be argued broadband is not the most essential public service – it won’t work without electricity, and it’s useless without web-enabled devices.

If broadband is free, what about tablets and laptops? Should unmetered electricity be free as well?

With economic hardship looming large, it seems the prospect of universal free broadband – as socially democratising as it would undoubtedly be – will never come to pass.

Neil Cumins author picture

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Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!