The Prime Minister has announced plans to make access to a fast broadband connection a universal right by 2020. Is internet access essential, or could we cope without it?
Over three-quarters of British adults use it daily, and young people aged between 16 and 24 now spend an average of more than 27 hours each week on it. But for 16% of British households, the internet remains either unnecessary or inaccessible. And 13% of the population has never been online at all.
The government wants to change this. Last week, David Cameron outlined plans to place a universal service obligation on ‘fast’ broadband by 2020. The proposals would oblige providers to set up a connection for anyone who asked for one. ‘Access to the internet shouldn’t be a luxury, it should be a right — absolutely fundamental to life in 21st century Britain,’ Cameron said.
The move would bring broadband access in line with other commodities currently considered essential in the UK — water, gas and electricity. Cameron says it will place Britain ‘on the way to becoming the most prosperous economy in the whole of Europe’, though Labour say he is announcing ‘another five years on the broadband back-burner’.
To meet his requirements, internet providers will need to expand their coverage, particularly into rural areas. Such a move may not be popular with everyone. Experts say network building is placing pressure on customers, some of whom have voiced alarm at recent price hikes announced by companies including Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media.
Such complaints would have seemed fatuous until relatively recently. Only with the invention of morse code in 1832 could messages be sent across long distances at speed. The internet itself was born out of the ideas of inventor Nikola Tesla in the early 1900s and the US Department of Defence, who funded ARPANET in the late 1960s. But modern internet access is largely made through the world wide web, which was invented in 1990.
The other essential items are much older. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879, while archaeologists have found evidence of running water systems dating back to 4,000 BC in India.
“We’re naturally suspicious of advances, especially in science. ”
Everyone should be online, say some. Those who are not are denied the ability to apply for jobs, work, find things out and maintain friendships. Many of them are elderly or vulnerable — the same people most in need of contact with others and information. Communication is a fundamental human need which, in the 21st century, cannot be adequately met without the internet.
Others are resistant. We have created a virtual world only to see it control us by making us believe we must be connected to others all the time. It is possible to make a valuable contribution to others, stay in touch with people we care about and enjoy life’s genuine pleasures whether we have the internet or not. We can live without it.
I live in a town with great broadband coverage — why does this matter to me? The company who provide your connection may need to put their prices up to make sure they can meet the government’s demand.
You could be affected on holiday. If you have friends or, in future, colleagues in areas with poor internet connections, it may be tough to communicate with them. And some argue that if the internet really is essential, it’s only fair that everyone gets the chance to use it.
How might the internet change my working life? More people work from home now, either occasionally or regularly; in 2014, there were 4.2 million home workers in the UK. But you may also need to beware — the internet has made us easier to contact, making it harder to differentiate between working time and leisure time.