A lot of the discussion about Labour’s promise to provide free fibreoptic broadband for all has revolved around economics, speculative polling and even “communism”. But it has not addressed what life without easy internet access is actually like for people across the country.
I’m 26 now, and we didn’t have the internet at home when I was a teenager. Internet access is generally bad in rural communities, but I lived in Belfast: it was just one utility bill too many. In fact, it’s still fairly common for people not to have it because of the cost – according to 2017 figures from Ofcom, only 47% of those on low incomes have broadband internet at home. So when I saw the policy announcement, my first thought was how much easier free internet would have made my school work and university applications.
Even 10 years ago, when the internet was less ubiquitous than it is now, the teachers at school assumed that everyone could access it. One of the university courses I applied to even had an extra test as part of the application process, with all the practice papers, tips and answers online. Other advice and workings could be found across various student forums.
Instead of accessing these materials on a home computer, like many others taking the test, I had to print them off in my mum’s office one night after everyone had left the building. When I had problems with questions, instead of Googling advice, I would make notes of my issues and bring them to my already overworked teacher. If he didn’t have time to work through them, I would either do another late-night visit to mum’s office, or use the school computers in the only free period I had when they were not in use by an IT class. Already, you can start to see the barriers a lack of home internet creates in terms of school work.
My research into which university to apply to was conducted via the glossy guides provided by universities at careers fairs – a form of propaganda difficult for teenagers to deconstruct. Everywhere was a great city, full of happy students who all said they were very satisfied; each course was one of the best in the country. It’s easy to forget, when you use the internet regularly, how crucial it is for comparing and critiquing information, as well as just looking it up. I also filled out my online Ucas form by hand and brought it in to type up in a free registration period, given only by the grace of my form teacher.
When I first moved to London I tutored a boy, as part of a charity scheme, who had no internet access. Every week he was set maths homework in an online forum. When he didn’t do it on time, it would automatically set three new tasks and he would get detention. There was a “no homework” rule in detention. So every week we met in a cafe and tried to work through the enormous backlog of exercises as quickly as possible. I’m sure I’ll have flashbacks to that online forum “teacher”, a cartoon owl, for ever.
Not having internet access in school is gruelling. But even as a dramatic teenager I probably wouldn’t have said it was life-ruining. The same can’t be said for digital-only government forms for visa applications and benefits. A UN report into the impact of austerity in the UK concluded that the “digital by default” design of universal credit “effectively [obstructs] many people’s access to entitlements”.
Of course, part of me is not surprised that the obvious benefits of free and universal internet access did not occur to some high-profile commentators, who were dismissive, quizzical and even scaremongered about Labour’s plans. It is probably natural that people who don’t have to worry about their access to basic services would think of fantastical outcomes such as “economic collapse” instead of real-world improvements to people’s lives. That these voices form a significant part of the narrative around policy change is a much more insidious problem than the government taking control of a few natural monopolies.
• Rachel Connolly is a journalist from Belfast, now based in London