Coronavirus: Calls for free broadband resisted by internet providers

Broadband providers are resisting calls to provide a free service to help people during the coronavirus outbreak.

One head teacher had suggested that the government require the step to ensure children get access to online classes after schools are suspended.

Such action could also encourage people over 70 without connections to sign up, so that they can video-chat with relatives during isolation periods.

But a trade body warned the move might threaten delivery of a smooth service.

The Internet Service Providers' Association (Ispa) said it was in "very early" talks with the government to help customers who become unable to continue paying their bills.

"Things are naturally developing extremely quickly at the moment, and Ispa plans to seek further guidance from government on these issues so that customers can remain connected to the internet during these unprecedented times," a spokesman added.

Online classes

Schools in Northern Ireland closed on Thursday, and the same measure comes into effect across the rest of the UK from Friday.

Many teachers have already set up ways to continue study via the net, and the BBC, among others, is working on other internet materials.

"Lots of companies have done really well in making their online resources free," Julie Greer, head teacher of Cherbourg primary school, in Eastleigh, Hampshire, told the Today Programme. 

"Is now the time to offer free broadband to families across the country, so that actually all these online learning opportunities that schools are talking about can be accessible?"

"Because if you've lost your job, the first thing you're going to need to cut is, potentially, your internet."

Until now, some people with no home connection have used public facilities to go online. But libraries and museums are also closing. 

In the US, some broadband providers - including Spectrum, Charter, and Comcast - are providing a free service to students and low-income families for 60 days amid the outbreak.

'No silver bullet'

In the UK, the Labour Party pledged free basic broadband in its last general election manifesto.

But the Conservative government opted instead to commit money to improving fibre infrastructure, which customers would continue to pay for.

About 80% of the UK population have a fixed-line broadband connection, a number that has held steady for years. Adding in mobile internet, 90% of people have access.

Ispa has said that connecting millions more people at this point could potentially lead to slowdowns.

However, TechUK - a body that represents the UK's wider technology industry - cast doubt on the idea that making broadband free would lead to a rush of new subscribers.

"There is no silver bullet to connecting the 10% of the population that don't use the internet on a day-to-day basis," said director Matthew Evans.

"Free broadband may seem like it will, but the far bigger challenges are in digital skills, attitude to the internet and physical ability to use digital devices."

He said the industry was already working on plans to help those "unable to pay their bills to ensure they stay connected."

There is also already a low-cost scheme available to people claiming certain types of benefits, in the form of BT Basic and Broadband.

However, it is limited to 15 gigabytes of data a month - which BT says would typically enable a user to do all the following each day:

  • browse the internet for up to half an hour a day
  • stream enough video to watch one standard definition film
  • upload 100 photos to Instagram or Facebook
  • listen to 100 music tracks (or 10 albums)
  • play online games for an hour a week