What’s it like living without the internet?

It’s hard to imagine living without the internet, yet millions of people across the UK have no day-to-day exposure to the virtual world

Monday, 11 January, 2021

It’s hard to overstate how important the internet has become in our lives.

You are reading this article online. It was written using cloud-hosted productivity tools, and published through the world’s leading web-based content management system.

This website is hosted on the internet, featuring a comprehensive array of deals on internet service providers which is automatically generated across…you guessed it.

But of course the online world is far larger than this tiny corner. There are 1.75 billion websites in existence, and the vast majority justify their presence in some way.

The internet has revolutionised communications and socialising, finance and banking, shopping and hobbies.

It lets us communicate with people around the world, in real time, effectively for free.

Living without the internet would mean no social media platforms, no ecommerce, no email access and no digital management of financial services – increasingly the only way to do so.

Amid ongoing economic and social trauma, it would mean no Zoom calls to loved ones, no online grocery orders, and no ability to work from home or let the kids attend virtual classes.

For those of us who are able to work remotely, book grocery deliveries and keep in touch with friends via WhatsApp, the latest lockdown is still incredibly difficult.

But for the 2.7 million UK adults who didn’t use the internet during the first few months of 2020, life was harder still – and there’s little evidence of that number significantly declining.

The digital divide

People with a broadband connection tend to assume everyone is online. Given the way in which the internet dominates modern life, how could you not be?

Yet millions of people missed out on the technology revolution that’s washed over us in the last thirty years.

The reasons why people are still living without the internet vary.

Some older people feel they’ve managed without it this long, and have no desire to learn the skills required.

Some people live in chaotic circumstances which mean access to a dependable internet connection can’t be taken for granted.

Disabilities can also make online access difficult, or even impossible.

A small percentage of the population simply can’t afford the monthly cost of an ISP, while device poverty is also a contributory factor.

Yet the founder of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, claimed last year that access to the internet “should be a universal right”.

He believes governments should treat connectivity akin to utilities like electricity and water, investing in network infrastructure while bringing down user costs to universally accessible levels.

And despite patronising articles claiming living without the internet is somehow liberating, most people are acutely aware they’re missing out on an increasingly essential parallel universe.

Managing without a stable home connection

Nothing can serve as a substitute for a home internet connection and a desktop or mobile device capable of running a web browser.

However, if someone you know has the desire to use the internet and can’t for any reason, these are ways to give them at least periodic access:

  • Free public WiFi. Many town centres, banks and libraries have WiFi networks which are universally accessible when they’re open. Shops and cafés tend to offer free WiFi to paying customers.
  • Acquire a second-hand smartphone. These are given away by charities, while mobile networks often run donation schemes. SIM-only deals are cheap, and WiFi is ubiquitous.
  • Join a voluntary group. Community groups who meet regularly in local venues may offer WiFi to attendees, possibly alongside laptops or tablets to let people go online briefly.
  • Research wireless community networks. These are springing up everywhere from Norfolk to the Scottish Borders, offering limited but free mobile internet coverage to the public.
  • Ask for WiFi passwords. It’ll cause no inconvenience to friends, relatives or neighbours to share their WiFi password with visitors when we’re allowed to set foot in each other’s homes again.
  • See if charities can offer training. If the problem is a lack of confidence or knowledge, organisations like Age UK run courses explaining how the internet works, and how to get online.
Neil Cumins author picture


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!