Free broadband for everyone! — Not so funny now, is it? — Sarah Murphy

8 min readJun 19, 2020


It was a few weeks after the 2019 General Election when I got chatting to a neighbour in the street. We were talking about the recent election result and she told me the reason she believed that Labour had lost was because of policies like free broadband, and started to laugh — real belly laughs, too. I have spoken to lots of people since then who either personally find ‘free internet access for all’ hilarious, or have had a similar experience where people laugh in their face about how ludicrous the concept was, or is, to them.

It’s not so funny now though, is it? When, in the space of hours — not days or weeks — our access to healthcare, education, work, food and housing were almost completely accessible only if you could get online in your home. Libraries, schools and community centres where people can usually go if they do not have a smartphone, computer and/or internet access were closed. Let us not forget that for a significant period of time, the NHS 111 service was only accessible online due to the high demand from callers needing to check if they had coronavirus symptoms.

As of 2019, 87% of households in Wales have access to the internet, with the majority doing so via a smartphone. That sounds like a high enough figure, but that still leaves 13% of entire households with no access to the internet and therefore, no access to these essential services during the COVID-19 nationwide lockdown. It is not, as some would assume, only older people that make up this 13%. In fact, the number of people over the age of 75 who use the internet increases every year (up from 22% to 40% between 2013 and 2018).

According to the Welsh Government-commissioned National Survey for Wales, 2017–18, households in social housing are less likely to have internet access (75%) than those in private rented (90%) or owner-occupied (89%) accommodation. Those in employment are more likely to have internet access at home (96%) than those who were unemployed (84%) or economically inactive (78%). Therefore, it is clear that the ability to access the internet in your home — not simply whether or not broadband is available in your area — is predominantly determined by your income, and a stable income at that. You have to be able to afford monthly payments and contracts that can tie you in for years, as well as have a bank account and a good credit rating in many cases. At the time of writing, £17.99 is one of cheapest monthly broadband packages, but that does not include line rental, installation and router costs.

The UK Government has primary responsibility for broadband policy, and these concerns have been raised by charities, community groups, campaigners, commissioners and politicians across the UK. Emerging examples and evidence support what many of us already knew: digital poverty is a problem in Britain and a huge barrier to equal opportunities and outcomes. The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown, only exacerbated the inequalities that already existed in our society, particularly impacting vulnerable and marginalised groups such as; children and young people; Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities; asylum seekers; and older people or people living alone ineligible for extra support.

In a recent statement, Professor Sally Holland, Children’s Commissioner for Wales said, “Imagine just for a moment living through this lockdown in a bedsit on your own, aged 18, with no family support, hardly any money, possibly mental and physical health problems and little access to a digital device?”

Organisations across Wales quickly tried to help. For example, TGP Cymru’s Team around the Tenancy project in North Wales, recently sent out 50 smartphones and 25 tablets to help care-experienced young people aged 18–25 staying in refuges, hostels or sofa-surfing. The 50 Netflix vouchers were most appreciated at a time when they have no advocate or social worker able to visit them, no one able to check-in on their physical and mental well-being in person. More than anything they are lonely.

There is no doubt that Digital Poverty has a disproportionate effect on BAME communities too. Rocio Cifuentes, Chief Executive of EYST Wales, recently gave evidence to the Senedd Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee stating, “Digital poverty has really emerged as a real huge factor that really decides and impacts on how able BAME children and young people and families are to access their rights, to access education, and even to look for jobs and so on. Unfortunately, because of the huge levels of poverty, BAME families are far less likely to have their own laptops, to have sufficient Wi-Fi, broadband. They’re far more likely, for example, to have three or four children all sharing one mobile phone and trying to do homework on that phone. It’s a situation that we know the education Minister has sought to address through the provision of a grant for schools to purchase laptops, but from what we hear, the implementation of that programme has been far too slow and many children and many families are still without laptops or Wi-Fi to enable them to do their work.”

Patience Bentu from Race Council Cymru added, “We began receiving feedback on some concerns and anxieties — that’s by the second week of the lockdown — and some of these earliest ones were related to children of asylum seekers and refugees not being able to access their schoolwork online, a fear of predictive scoring, which was on the back of a Huffington Post article highlighting the disproportionate effects of predictive scoring on BAME children in England.” In addition, the Senedd Committee heard that asylum-seeking families in particular have also struggled to access free school meals or engage with voucher or payment schemes because they cannot get online or have a bank account.

Where I live in Bridgend, as is the case across Wales, it has been wonderful to see people reaching out to their elderly and isolated neighbours, doing their food shops and collecting prescriptions. Bridgend Association of Voluntary Organisations (BAVO) together with Bridgend County Borough Council, have even ensured that everyone who had a shielding letter, and could not be reached by telephone, had a volunteer pop around to their home to check-in on them. However, what about people who did not qualify for shielding letters or extra support, but were also cut off from services because they had no access to the internet? It meant they could not join online support groups where they could ask their neighbours questions about where to find flour and tinned corned beef, or pop online at night when they could not sleep to share their worries. As Chief Executive of Age Cymru, Victoria Lloyd, recently reported, “We know that huge numbers of older people don’t have access to the internet and therefore can’t do those things that we would naturally do in seeking other sources of information.” This is especially the case in more rural areas of Wales such as Powys, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, and Gwynedd which have the highest number of homes in need of help to improve their connectivity. Welsh Government is using its devolved powers to try to address some of these issues via the Access Broadband Cymru scheme, but it takes time, does not include monthly rental costs, and at the moment you can only apply for it via an email address.

In August 2018, founder of Hiraeth Blog Cymru, Matthew Hexter highlighted the digital divide in rural Wales, as well as proposed creating “a state-owned internet provider competing with private providers, putting people before profit” as a vital public service and crucial to future economic growth. Talking to him about the criticism he received for daring to not only raise the issue of increasing internet access costs, but also offering a solution for dealing with it, makes me question: Why do people have such strong reactions to the free broadband for people and businesses policy? Possibly, people laugh because they cannot imagine what it is like not to have access to the internet, and are blissfully unaware of how it hinders your opportunities and life chances. It could be that its perceived to be a luxury used for entertainment, gaming and non-essential shopping, so why should the government pay for it? And maybe, people get angry because of something deeper…because unfettered access to the internet is power. Some have even suggested Wi-Fi access is now the new foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Basic Human Needs (along with a battery for your laptop or smartphone!).

Because it is not just about services, being able to access the internet from your home 24/7 is also how we engage with democracy and enact our human rights. It is about access to information and being part of the global, national and local discussion that again, within hours, transferred to being almost solely accessible online. For many people who had no access to the internet during lockdown, and could no longer go out to buy newspapers, the daily television briefings and news were all they had for updates about the pandemic laws and guidelines. They could not be on social media being part of the conversation about unfolding events, or join community Facebook groups to ask questions about access to services like opening times for chemists, supermarkets and foodbanks. They could not join Zoom calls with their local representatives, or take online government surveys that would contribute to future planning. Essentially, without the internet, they did not have a voice and they could not be counted.

As we start to cautiously remerge as a society, with no guarantee that we will avoid second or third waves of COVID_19 in Wales, we have an opportunity to right this wrong. 87% of households with access to the internet was not good enough before the coronavirus pandemic. The lockdown has just highlighted a problem that we already had and will only get worse as access to more public services completely move online for ease and cost-savings. We can no longer ignore that increasingly, in order to be active in our communities and participate in democratic life, as well as make use of public services that we are entitled to as citizens, internet access is a form of power that enables us to do that. Ultimately, we cannot claim to live in an equal rights democracy until we have 100% free internet connectivity for everyone, as well as a device to connect to the World Wide Web. Even then, there is so much work to do to make it free of interference (a discussion for another day) — but we can only get there if everyone can take part in the conversation.

Sarah Murphy is the prospective Welsh Labour Senedd candidate for Bridgend constituency. She has an MA in Digital Media & Society from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture, as well as conducting research for their Data Justice Lab.