Free ultra-fast broadband isn't just possible, it's necessary, argues Elly Badcock
“Broadband communism?” questioned the BBC on Saturday, in one of the most memeable elections quotes yet. They may have meant this as a sly dig at Corbyn’s labour, but the prospect of free, nationalized ultra-fast broadband for every home in the UK by 2030 has inspired millions of people.
To people on reliable, large monthly salaries, who live in big cities and are able to pay for rent, bills and food each month without being forced to use credit cards or decide between eating and heating, perhaps the idea of universal broadband access seems somewhat frivolous. The same people who look down their nose at working-class people for owning flatscreen TVs or nice trainers are likely to be the ones dismissing the idea of having equal access to the internet as a ‘crazed communist scheme’ (looking at you, Boris Johnson).
The obvious riposte is to point to libraries – a nationalized public service existing to allow people free access to literature, news, technology, leisure research and information. How ridiculous it would be, the argument goes, to describe access to libraries in the same terms! Libraries, surely, aren’t seen as frivolous or unnecessary? Well, apparently they are to the Tories and Liberal Democrats, who have shut down or forced to run on a volunteer basis over 817 libraries, or 100 every year since the 2010 coalition government. The ruling class has never supported equal access to information and technology, and never will.
Lack of internet access, whether total or intermittent in areas with low-quality broadband, has a serious and far-reaching impact on people’s lives. Virtually every job is advertised online, and the application process managed through either email or an online application portal. Many employers, including public institutions like the civil service, require candidates to complete a video interview – impossible with slow internet connection. Meeting the criteria for benefits has always been challenging without a computer – under the previous Job Seeker’s Allowance rules, claimants had to apply for 24 jobs per week online whether they had access to a computer and internet or not. The much-protested Universal Credit system is particularly cruel and Kafka-esque, as it can only be applied for online. With the average internet bill clocking in at around £30 a month, unemployed people are likely to be unable to afford the service they need to claim the benefits that won’t cover the cost of the service they need.
If by some miracle people without internet access are able to navigate these endless hoops and secure employment, many jobs rely on at least some technical knowledge. The Government’s own research suggests that digital skills are a necessary part of so-called ‘unskilled’ or ‘low skilled’ work such as entry-level jobs in factories, warehouses and call centres. Honing these digital skills without internet access is far more challenging, and locks people out of the job market simply because they can’t afford eye-watering broadband costs.
But Broadband Communism is more than a way to help the cogs in the capitalist machine turn by providing more and better-skilled workers. The internet has become a central part of our culture and society – whether communicating with friends and family through video calling and social media, accessing news and media that isn’t controlled by Rupert Murdoch, or simply watching videos of cats falling off things at the end of a long day, being locked out of internet access can mean being locked out of social connection and leisure activities. Broadband is most limited in rural areas of the UK, where people are already suffering the effects of ten years of austerity with less access to public transport, shops and pubs shutting down, and high youth unemployment, compounding the problem.
Ultimately, Broadband Communism has raised the hackles of the ruling class because they are horrified at working class people having free and equal access to a necessity of modern life. Labour’s pledge to take this essential utility out of the hands of giant companies and into public ownership is a much-needed and inspirational addition to their manifesto; but it’s the cherry on the cake of a much broader nationalization project. If it’s outrageous that people are being locked out of vital parts of life through limited internet access, it’s a travesty and an affront to human decency that private companies are profiting from selling us water, heating, electricity, housing and transport. Free and equal access to all the necessities of life is entirely possible in a society structured around human need; and under Corbyn’s Labour, we can take a big step towards making society work in the interests of the many, not the few.