The Importance of Internet Access
There are many factors that contribute to deciding where you live. Price and location are primary considerations. If you have a family then schools are a major factor. Then there are other issues such as council tax, local facilities and transportation. If you use any of the major property listing websites, then you’ll find data on all of these points. However in recent years an additional factor has been added to this list of requirements. Internet access now plays a role in deciding whether a property is right or not. Having a fast and stable connection not only improves our leisure time but also play a part in many peoples work life. Self-employment and working from home are becoming more common, as is a culture of working outside of traditional hours. For many, internet access is now as essential as any other utility service.
Sadly, the UK still remains a country where the digital divide is clearly apparent. High speed, fibre based internet access is still only economically viable to rollout in major business and urban areas. Thus it is still only available in the major cities. 4G coverage is also patchy in rural areas, so offers no real alternative service. You may find a few wireless options here and there throughout the country along with other innovative providers. However the digital aspirations of successive UK governments have failed continuously over the last fifteen years. Trite buzzwords such as “superfast broadband” are still bandied about by politicians with no real technical background. You only have to look at the finer points of the current Digital Economies Bill, as it passes through The House of Lords, to see that it woefully misses the mark with regard to serving the needs of consumers and business alike.
I live in South East London, in a proverbial “leafy suburb”. Residents of the borough are in the core demographics for Netflix, Amazon Prime and other leisure services. Self-employment and home businesses are common too. Therefore, the major telecommunications companies see fit to provide suitable home and business internet services. For example, British Telecom (of whom I am a customer) offers fibre internet services from the local telephone exchange to cabinets in the streets. Connections to the home are then bridged by use of telephone landlines, providing speeds of 50 or 75MB. Virgin Cable is currently being rollout in my area offering 200MB connections in direct competition. Most packages have an unlimited download option. Yet the contrast with the rest of the UK is stark. Large parts of the country still have to make do with ADSL 2+ services providing connections of between 2 and 8MB. Often those living in such areas have no alternative vendors to go to.
Until last year when I became a carer, I relied upon the internet for the provision of my work. I would log into a secure site to collect my technical writing assignments and once completed, return to upload them. Prior to then, I would often store backups of client’s data on my own home servers. I’ve been working from home in some way or another since 2002 and have therefore always had a need for a robust and fast connection. Since my early retirement, I still find that the bulk of the administrative duties I do for my disabled parents need to be carried out online. In fact, given the choice I prefer to do most things that way. I can make quick purchases for my parents such as medical supplies, directly from my phone. I can do my accounts and file my tax return from my desktop PC. Pretty much all the day to day household administration that we all face, can be done via the internet at our own convenience.
Sadly, many in the UK can’t consider such a move to online services, finding themselves on the wrong side of an ever-widening digital divide. Which raises the question as to whether internet access should be seen as more than a luxury and effectively a necessity? Certainly, business has embraced the concept of free wi-fi as a means to keeping customers in certain retail industries happy. Should society and possibly government go beyond this and ensure that internet access is guaranteed in specific circumstances? For example, I frequently visit a major hospital in Kent with my Father. Because of the geography of the area, a mobile phone signal and thus internet access is unavailable within the hospital grounds. If you wish to speak to family or order a taxi, you have to walk for about five minutes or more to be able to do so. However, you can purchase internet access as a patient or a visitor for a fee. I have found myself on several occasions at this location in the early hours of the morning and have thus been forced to pay to get online, to return home. Considering that people at hospitals are frequently under pressure or in distress, should internet access be gated in such a way?
In the UK family incomes within certain demographics have fallen in recent years. In light of the forthcoming economic changes the country faces, it is likely they will continue to do so. Combined with a skills shortage and a decrease in social mobility, we are seeing a clear distinction between the haves and the have nots. The digital divide clearly reflects this. If you find yourself living in specific post codes, unless you find a means to leave, you may well find yourself excluded from adequate internet access. With further services and resources going online, there is potential to further marginalise specific groups of society. Internet access is too important to be driven by just market forces. Is it not time for this matter to be dealt with in a more socially responsible way? Because I suspect that if it is not, it may come back to haunt us in a decade’s time.