In the age of 5G and gigabit broadband speeds, we all want our internet to be faster and more reliable. As the pandemic hit our connection to the online world became more important than ever. Zoom calling family and friends has been a lifeline and remote work has allowed many of us to stay home and stay safe.
But what about those who can’t reliably access the internet?
The divide between those who have internet access – let alone superfast speeds – runs along multiple different lines. This digital divide runs not only between countries but also between classes, generations, and city limits.
Right to internet access
Broadband access was a hot topic during the last general election and the discussion has continued to be a political one. A large portion of today’s political and social debates occur online, making internet access inextricably linked to exercising our political rights. When you have access to the internet you arguably have greater opportunities to exercise your political rights than those without internet access.
The issue of internet access is clearly important to MPs and their constituents with Conservative MPs frequently bring up the topic at PMQs.
The UN ‘affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online’.
Though internet access is not a right in itself, it is perhaps a precondition for enjoying other existing rights, such as freedom of expression and the right to education.
Internet access is now an essential utility for daily life, more so in the pandemic than ever before as our work, social, and school lives moved online.
The move to homeschooling your children is a major decision, and not one we ever expected to be made for us. Ordinarily, the decision to opt out of mainstream schooling is something carefully weighed up by each individual family, taking their unique circumstances into consideration. The pandemic changed that dramatically.
Parents suddenly and unexpectedly made the shift to the role of teacher, supporting online schooling and supplementing it in their own time. This became a big challenge terms of time, energy, and connectivity. As we all find ourselves online more than ever, homeschooling presents additional challenges for those without access to a reliable internet connection.
Provision of laptops and other devices to support distance learning was an excellent step, but the next challenge lay in getting them connected.
Many platforms used for online schooling, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, are very data hungry. This presents challenges for poorer families who may be relying on small mobile data allowances.
The Department for Education has set up a scheme to provide laptops and internet access to those who need them which even covers 4G routers and possible free increases to mobile data allowances. Parents, carers, and students can’t apply to this directly themselves however – it has to be done by the school.
The superfast broadband rollout is buffering…
As superfast gigabit broadband rolls out across the UK some places are still lagging behind with painfully slow download speeds of 1MB per second. Telecoms regulator Ofcom has stepped up to combat this, stating that ‘the coronavirus pandemic has underlined the importance of a reliable internet connection.’
The current Conservative promise is to have full-fibre gigabit-capable broadband rolled out to 85% of premises by 2025 – this is a noble long-term plan but it is shorter-term more widely applicable support that is really needed at the moment.
Alongside the work being done by the Department of Education to provide students with internet access, a former voucher scheme with £210 million available is being relaunched to help those struggling with poor coverage.
BT’s Openreach is said to be building full-fibre internet ‘like fury’ since Ofcom decided they would not be capping prices on Openreach’s new connections which has financially incentivised the company to speed up its rollout.
In an effort to reduce costs Openreach plans to turn off copper-based networks in areas where fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) connections have been put in place. This should also encourage customers to make the switch, but risks passing the cost of the upgrade to the consumer.
Ofcom has confirmed that ‘customers, particularly vulnerable ones, will be protected during this transition so they can continue to access their services’, also indicating that the switch would be a progressive one.
The internet is a new arena in which we can exercise our existing rights – from politics and education to freedom of expression, internet access has become a vital part of our lives. Though internet access is not a right itself, it is a home for our existing rights. It is clearly vital to living our lives and fully engaging with our society, especially in these pandemic times.
Governments are doing a lot to address the inequalities at the root of the digital divide as well as the ones that are perpetuated by its existence.
About the Author: Leo Hynett
Leo Hynett is a contributing Features Writer, with a particular interest in Culture, the Arts and LGBTQ+ Politics.
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