This week, a new report by the regulator Ofcom revealed that more than half of UK low-income households are unaware that they could benefit from special social tariffs on broadband Internet deals. This means that millions of families lose out on savings of up to £200 annually on the costs of Internet access services.
But the problem is much larger than lost savings because, as another Ofcom report found in 2023, 7% of UK households still had no Internet access at all. For 20% of these households, lack of affordability was the reason they remained offline. For some of them, making use of social tariffs could make the difference between having and not having Internet access. Ofcom also found that, in January 2023, 6% (around 1.4 million) of UK households that did have fixed broadband Internet access found it difficult to afford paying for this service. Social tariff savings could help solve the affordability issue for many of them.
Internet access, though, is no longer a question of convenience or using an optional technology. Rather, lack of Internet access is now a matter of social and political exclusion. This is because, as I have analysed in my research, Internet access has become practically indispensable in our digitalised societies for having adequate opportunities to enjoy basic human rights."Dr Merten Reglitz - Senior Lecturer in Global Ethics, University of Birmingham
Internet access, though, is no longer a question of convenience or using an optional technology. Rather, lack of Internet access is now a matter of social and political exclusion. This is because, as I have analysed in my research, Internet access has become practically indispensable in our digitalised societies for having adequate opportunities to enjoy basic human rights.
Moreover, the pandemic has shifted norms about what the Internet is used for. Working from home, online medical appointments, using learning resources on the Internet, and accessing public and commercial services online have become normalised. It has also become more difficult than ever for people to look and apply for jobs or housing offline. Most of these activities now require more than mobile Internet via a smartphone but instead reliable broadband access in people’s houses. Because of its practical importance, Internet has become a basic utility. Just as is the case with food, water, and electricity – society and government must ensure that everyone has access to the Internet.
With respect to social tariffs for broadband, this means that – as a matter of justice – public authorities should address Ofcom’s concern that Internet providers are not being upfront about the availability of these low cost options. This might mean that public authorities require Internet providers to do everything reasonably possible to advertise them more directly to their customers.
Accessing the Internet, though, requires more than digital data services. People also need to be connected to broadband infrastructure, have access to digital devices, and possess basic digital skills. There are many who are lacking in at least one of these dimensions of Internet access.
Broadband infrastructure is not yet sufficiently available in all rural and remote areas in the UK. In 2019, the UK government also found that 11.3 million people (21% of the population) did not have basic digital skills. To address this issue, the Department for Education should continue to support the work of the Good Things Foundation and that of other digital inclusion charities such as Citizens Online.
Moreover, during the COVID-19 lockdowns, the government had to provide over one million laptops and tablets for disadvantaged children so they were able to participate in online teaching. Public authorities could also do more to ensure that everyone has access to digital devices – for example, by nationally supporting the work of the Good Things Foundation’s National Device Bank that repairs donated digital devices and gifts them to those who need them.
Guaranteeing universal Internet access is a vital and complex social priority. Social tariffs for Internet services can help many households if they are made aware of this support. But more public support is needed to ensure that no one encounters obstacles along any of the dimensions of Internet access. Ultimately, Internet access is a matter of making sure that people can adequately enjoy and exercise their rights in our digitalised society.