Good internet as vital as electricity or running water – Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield

Grocery shopping when stuck in quarantine, filling out a prescription while avoiding unventilated indoor spaces, joining your company’s weekly team meeting during lockdown – an internet connection is the vital, golden thread linking these activities.

This final example is of particular interest. It is easy to forget that home workers were a rare species, pre-pandemic – only five per cent of UK workers reported they mainly worked from home in 2019 and home workers in the UK were labelled by 2018 researchers as suffering from a “flexibility stigma”.

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Now, recent Bright Blue research shows that 68 per cent of UK workers have worked from home at least some of the time since the pandemic struck in March 2020.

Burnsal in North Yorkshire. Rural areas can be impacted by poor internet connections. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

For many, who perhaps never envisioned they would spend most of their working day in their bedroom or at their kitchen table, this is simply the way they now do their jobs.

Worryingly, as we are frogmarched into this brave new world of work, home working has not been a boon for everyone.

Our research naturally uncovered benefits and challenges. We found most people are pleased to have left their commutes behind (57 per cent) and enjoy a new sense of control over their daily routines (56 per cent).

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Treat the internet like all other utilities if rural areas to prosper and stay s…

Yet strikingly, when we consider that golden thread that connected us through lockdowns, over 53 per cent of home workers reported struggling with poor internet at least sometimes.

All of us have experienced the irritant of a spotty wi-fi connection, causing an unresponsive webpage or the amusing pixelation of our line manager’s face. But what has it been like for the 13 per cent of home workers we polled who reported being plagued by poor internet frequently, or the eight per cent who said it was always a problem?

These workers may have been unable to match the productivity of their well-connected colleagues, or even have had to commute to work when they would rather have avoided coronavirus by staying at home.

In this new world of work, with many businesses retaining the home-working model, and some going as far as to shut their offices completely and save themselves some rent, how do such people fit in?

Pre-pandemic evidence gives us an idea of who they might be, showing that those living in rural communities are at a higher risk of suffering from poor internet and that the 123,000 “forgotten” homes do without access to broadband capable of supporting the needs of a typical family are mainly in rural areas.

This is clearly of particular concern to the UK’s more rural areas, including Yorkshire.

Now those on the poorly connected side of this modern schism face being iced out of job markets, as employers increasingly expect their employees to come whenever they are called, albeit virtually.

In 2021, the Government said it was aiming to deliver full-fibre broadband to 85 per cent of homes by 2025, but going into 2022 accompanied by the significant shift to home working that is not good enough.

The Government must update its pledge to make sure no one is left behind and commit to a 2030 target to complete the rollout of full-fibre broadband to the hardest-to-hit homes.

But ensuring access to a decent internet will require more: Bright Blue is calling on the Government to make it a legal obligation for landlords to provide and maintain access to a decent internet connection for their tenants.

For the vast majority, this policy merely means landlords must allow new installations from telecommunications companies where necessary, from whom consumers already have the legal right to request decent broadband.

Indisputably, home working is not, cannot and should not be for everyone but poor internet must not be the thing that stops people from doing it, especially in a country in which an internet connection has become a public utility, as vital as electricity or running water.

Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield is a senior researcher at the Bright Blue think-tank.

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