/ Technology

Should broadband access be a legal right?

Network cable

Finland thinks so – it’s the first country to coerce its providers into supplying connections for all its residents. Is it time the UK upped its game and followed suit?

Like telephone and post, broadband is now a legal right for all Finnish citizens. Soon each and every one of them will have access to the joys of YouTube, Wikipedia and, of course, Which? Convo.

The country’s net providers are now legally obliged to offer ‘reasonably priced’ connections to every resident – at a speed of at least one megabit per second (Mbps).

Perhaps a little slow, but at least they’ve promised 100Mbps for every Finn by 2015. Us sorry Brits can only expect a ‘commitment’ of 2Mbps by 2012 – a target that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt calls ‘pitifully unambitious’. Can’t say I disagree.

Who will pay for the broadband roll-out?

However, the situation is a little different over here. In the UK, broadband is provided over an antiquated copper wire network, so making the roll-out law would likely incur big cost implications.

Then there’s the fact that 96% of Finnish households are already connected, leaving just 4,000 wallowing offline. A drop in the ocean compared to the near three million unconnected Brits.

So who would meet the bill? Like the last government’s ‘superfast’ broadband tax (now scrapped) the cost would probably be felt by the UK taxpayer. A more relaxed commitment should allow providers to meet (most of) the bill themselves – and hopefully put an end to insane £150,000 fees for rural folk.

Is broadband a basic human necessity?

A big chunk of the UK is on the wrong side of the digital divide, and from Which? member feedback we know that if you can’t find a decent broadband service, you find it incredibly frustrating.

But should it be a legal right? Our broadband expert Ceri Stanaway had this to say:

“Unlike energy and water, broadband isn’t vital to our survival. But in a modern information society, it does make a huge difference. Especially in terms of access to services, better prices and more ways of communicating with friends and family. So we’d like to see the Universal Service Commitment remain firmly in place.”

Thankfully the new government supports that commitment. And they should definitely get cracking sooner rather than later. Though it’s a shame we’ll probably never match Korea’s plans for one gigabit ‘download a film in seconds’ connection. Sigh.

Mr Gus says:
9 July 2010

Connection to the internet has passed way beyond just being a nice to have. There are so many services now that can only be accessed online that consumers left without a connection to the digital world will be seriously at a disadvantage. The ‘digital divide’ is no longer just a buzz phrase, it is very real and, like Finland, we need a proper commitment to tackle it before it gets as bad as many of the other divides we have in this country.

klw says:
9 July 2010

It would be great if everyone had the same level of access to broadband. As the previous comment says, many services are only available online and without access to the internet many people are at a disadvantage.

Adam says:
9 July 2010

Should mobile coverage be a universal right? Many of the arguments posed for universal rights to broadband could apply to mobile phones. Yet here, many parts of the country – and like broadband, it’s the rural parts that are most affected – are left with poor or no mobile coverage. Plus, wouldn’t solving the issue of mobile coverage would allow mobile broadband too?

Broadband might not be vital for survival, but as soon as Government starts delivering service online, and encourages citizens to use them, they do seem to have a responsibility to ensure that everyone actually can!

Ruth says:
29 July 2010

Broadband access is an extremely desirable service and one I would HATE to be without, but surely saying it is a legal right is too extreme? Once we (Western World ‘we’) are all happily connected, can we expect to see "BroadbandAid" concerts and appeals so that every other country in the world has its ‘rights’ too?

I think I agree with Adam, mobile coverage, with its mobile broadband option, would be a better way to go and would probably cost the taxpayer a lot less.

Pete says:
2 August 2010

What determines the "Legal Right" case? Just to say that the government and other providers are signposting people to the internet does not justify a basis for a legal rights argument. Yes more and more services are now on the internet, but all backed up by other methods to get government information. Business is now more prevelant on the internet, but this is because there is a user base that private business can market towards, if there wasn’t such a high volume of users then business would not bother.
This is no case for a legal right and I think Finland have made a major mistake.

Whatever happens, it must not be based on the ‘up to’ speeds used by internet service providers to deceive the public.

I like Adam’s suggestion of giving priority to mobile phones and mobile broadband if that is a cost effective solution for helping more people.