Do we have a digital apartheid? Sure, but it's nothing to do with government inaction

Grant Shapps MP has said that many social tenants in England can’t get online or haven’t ever been online. He is right, but it is not because of government inaction

Many Britons are still without access to the internet
Dominique Lazanski
On 7 December 2011 10:05

Housing Minister, Grant Shapps yesterday pledged to end 'digital apartheid'. He said that many social tenants in England can’t get online or haven’t ever been online. He is right, many people haven’t ever been online in this country, but it is not because of government inaction.

In reality, the government has been getting in the way of people getting online. Let’s look at how.

In his press release, Minister Shapps said that,

“Government is committed to getting social housing connected so tenants can reap the benefits of digital living, from access to online shopping bargains and job-hunting; to moving home through 'HomeSwap Direct' to be closer to a new job, family, or to a property better suited to their needs; and more.”

This is important, there is no doubt about that, but the government is holding up the rolling out of affordable broadband in both the fixed and mobile sectors.

Broadband offerings around the country would be more competitive if the government would lower or eliminate the taxes on companies that provide fixed line broadband. The cost of renting ducts and poles from BT in which to lay new fibre needs to be drastically reduced in order to encourage companies to invest in new fibre networks. And of course, the tax on lighting dark fibre should be eliminated.

Furthermore, the incessant delay of the mobile spectrum auction prevents the rollout of 4G – another way to access the Internet.

All of these steps could be implemented to create a more competitive market which would drive down costs and make Internet access much more affordable – especially to low income tenants.

Volunteer and charity solutions could continue to play a part in solving this situation. As mentioned in the press release, there have been a number of public-private partnerships including:

“All 800 residents in two London Peabody estates have been given internet access in a three-year Wi-Fi pilot. At least half of the residents are now using the service - many through smartphones - and a laptop loan scheme is available for those who can't afford one.”

This is a great idea that can continue through donations of broadband access of both the fixed and mobile kind. I have no doubt that even more solutions like this will happen in the future, but only if the government continues to stay out of the way.

Individual businesses, local volunteers, and charity groups can all contribute to a local community, without the intervention of government, by coming together to fulfil the needs of that community. Usually that means one or two champions for the community whether a community leader, a local business, or volunteers.

In addition to Martha Lane Fox’s campaign, companies like Microsoft or IBM run programmes as do lots of private charities.

Ironically, however, giving social housing tenants access to the Internet doesn’t necessarily mean access to a free and open Internet that we currently enjoy. With the current proposals for website blocking, many social housing tenants may see a different kind of Internet.

Under the Prevent Strategy, website blocking is to be used to obstruct anti-terrorist sites ‘across the public estate’. That may very well mean that blocking will happen within social housing first and quicker than other types of website blocking. And we all know how well that works out.

‘Digital apartheid’ isn’t in reality what Minister Shapps needs to overcome. It is the intervention of the government that prevents digital access from happening. But wasn’t apartheid in South Africa originally instituted by the government in charge? So maybe we do have a government mandated ‘digital apartheid’ after all.

Dominique Lazanski spent over 10 years in the Internet industry in Silicon Valley and works for the Tax Payers' Alliance in the United Kingdom. She tweets at @dml

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