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COVID-19 – UK ISPs Being Urged to Offer Free Broadband

Friday, Mar 20th, 2020 (7:46 am) - Score 9,378

The Government is understood to be in “very early talks” with UK internet access providers over how they could better support people during the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) crisis, which has resulted in many people and families needing to work from and stay at home. One option could be to offer free broadband.

At present some providers, such as KCOM and BT, already have special social tariffs for those on state benefits, which are cheaper but also slower and often only come with very meagre data allowances (e.g. 15GB on BT Basic with a 10Mbps average speed [ADSL2+] for £9.95 a month with line rental). For other providers the social tariff may also only cover a phone service, although most other ISPs don’t offer such a tariff at all.

However the BBC reports that the UK Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) is in early talks with the Government about the possibility of introducing additional support measures during the COVID-19 outbreak, which at least one head teacher has suggested could ideally include giving consumers free broadband. But it is presently unclear what has actually been discussed with ISPs.

Implementing free access across such a large and diverse array of broadband ISPs, connection types and packages would be difficult, especially for smaller providers that may struggle to survive, but is possible. Nevertheless ISPs will no doubt argue that it may be unsustainable for them to offer a free service for very long, particularly if their suppliers (e.g. Openreach, BTWholesale etc.) still continue to charge them.

A Spokesperson for the ISPA said:

“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.”

Realistically it seems unlikely that the Government would mandate that every ISP offer free broadband for all (too many providers would be at risk of collapse) and thus any agreement seems almost certain to be voluntary, most likely focusing upon the largest providers.

On the other hand such measures could be more strategically targeted at vulnerable groups, such as those covered by the aforementioned social tariffs (e.g. unemployed people or those in receipt of other essential state benefits), and will probably be time limited until COVID-19 is resolved. But that is merely speculation on our part and it could also just result in a series of general discounts or included extras being offered.

We note that some providers, such as Virgin Mobile (Virgin Media) and Sky (Sky Broadband), have already provided customers with a few free extras and allowance boosts – mostly related to voice calls and mobile rather than broadband – to help them (here and here). Judging by today’s news, we should expect further changes to follow.

Finally, some people will probably recall that the UK Labour Party attracted a lot of criticism last year for their populist idea of nationalising the entire broadband industry and giving everybody free full fibre access (here and here). But that was radically different from what is being discussed above and would have taken years to implement (not to mention causing huge industry disruption etc.).

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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11 Responses
  1. Avatar photo joe says:

    I do think one thing that may come out of Covid may be that 111 or similar NHS site might become a mandatory connection on phones etc (ie free data/connection) in the manner 999 is for calls.

  2. Avatar photo andrew cunningham says:

    The Americans have implemented such a thing already via many cable companies to families who have students of all ages at home without service via a temporary free service.

  3. Avatar photo Ferrocene Cloud says:

    It’s nice that some random head teacher with no knowledge of the industry or SP networks thinks it should be free, but capacity, hardware, and trained engineers to implement and fix cost money. Perhaps they should remember that not everyone has a guaranteed public sector job. Somehow I imagine that if this person was told they should work for free they would quickly sing a different song.

    It would make far more sense for the government arrange with providers to pay for services to be sold at-cost. Something like 10Mbps is more than enough for basic connectivity. And less likely to get the capacity planning team worried.

    1. Avatar photo 125us says:

      I think there’s a reasonable argument to be had that all the people who are losing their jobs as we speak should be able to retain connectivity even if they won’t be able to pay their bills. The government can only manage this crisis if they’re able to communicate with folks.

      I agree with you when it comes to providing new services, but the argument is different for existing. The marginal cost of continuing to provide an existing service is fairly small. It would come with a big revenue impact for service providers and especially Openreach but that’s one of the business costs of providing essential public services. It will need government action to stop SPs trying to gain advantage though, I think they’ll all have to do it.

    2. Avatar photo Ferrocene Cloud says:

      I agree with offering help to those who are struggling to pay the bills, but there are multiple options there. That certainly wasn’t my interpretation of the “just make it all free” sentiment.

  4. Avatar photo Jake4 says:

    Would be good if Openreach & BT to provide symmetric speeds for FTTP customers to allow people to work at home easier.

    1. Avatar photo 125us says:

      I’ve had several long-ish periods of being a permanent homeworker in my career and I haven’t felt the need for symmetry. Standard broadband is perfectly fine for working with smaller files, telephony, video conferencing and email.

      During the times when I’ve worked with very large files (Mainframe system analyst and GIS development) I’ve worked with those files on remote machines. You don’t need to upload and download huge files to be able to work with them and in fact many organisations’ security policies would prohibit it anyway.

      Probably moot anyway because there is absolutely no way of flicking a switch and making asymmetric connections suddenly symmetric.

  5. Avatar photo wireless pacman says:

    Free food from supermarkets
    Free fuel from filling stations
    Free beer from pubs (hmmm…. …nice!)

  6. Avatar photo Meadmodj says:

    Most people already have sufficient access to sufficient bandwidth for essential home working or home tuition. Plan the day.
    In addition many with either personal or business Smart phones in 4G areas can use tethering as an alternative or in addition.
    If there is an issue it will be for those with very slow ADSL and no 4G.
    You certainly don’t have an issue if you already have Ultra and providers cabnt simply reconfigure their networks even if it was technically possible.

    More practical solutions would be
    Opening community or empty business facilities that have decent broadband with WIFI and desks (socially isolated distance).
    Granting temporary access to your neighbours to your WIFI (or via guest AP) if they have no broadband or limited broadband
    ISPs allowing temporary free access to Public WIFI (including VM, BT FON etc)

  7. Avatar photo Geoff says:

    Every BT residential router has the BT with Fon service so why not have BT make the BT with Fon service free for vulnerable people so they can piggyback on existing capacity without setting up new lines or compromising security.

    Where I live, there are a lot of residential Fon hotspots (including one from my router) due to the proliferation of BT fibre service.

  8. Avatar photo Kate Green says:

    I think digital poverty is the key issue. Education is not a level playing field as it is. I teach some people who purely rely on mobile data and therefore cannot access online learning in the same way that some of their peers can. For a certain amount of time, with government intervention, education/wi-fi/ a broadband connection needs to be made accessible to all – of course this will be at a cost but a lot of costs are being shouldered by the government (and ultimately the tax payer) and the cost of education throughout the summer term – for all – needs to be factored in at this tough time.

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