Editorial: Internet is an essential utility, so it should be affordable and accessible in every corner of the land

WHFP Editorial: 21.05.21

Last Saturday Skye Camanachd held a fundraiser on behalf of Skye Community Response, the superb voluntary initiative which is doing so much for the island at this troubled time.

It was a unique fundraiser in many ways.

It took the form of a collective sponsored run and walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

That is a distance of 874 miles. In the event no fewer than 440 people took part.

They covered 2338 miles and raised over £16,000.

And unless they were already there, none of the 440 went anywhere near Land’s End or John O’Groats. Many of them did not leave their garden.

Some did not leave their house.

It was of course a virtual collective walk or run. It was accomplished via the internet.

An app called Strava recorded, mapped and collated each participant’s accomplishment and assembled them into a whole.

The Celtic and Scotland footballer Ryan Christie, a Highlander who began his career at Inverness Caley Thistle, took part and posted a video message of support on Facebook and Twitter.

“Skye is on the mind of every Highlander just now,” said Ryan from Glasgow.

Photographs and videos of individual efforts – which went from youngsters toddling a few yards to Somhairle Macdonald running a full marathon to 92-year-old Christine MacLeod walking a mile – were shared on social media, bringing the whole team, from California to Skye, together.

The entire project was not only made possible by the internet; it was also turned into a social occasion by the internet.

The fact that you are reading this online suggests that you understand most of the terms and concepts expressed above.

To some degree, you are what used to be known as “computer literate”.

That is not surprising, because most of us are. The UK is online more than most other countries in the world.

According to the Office for National Statistics, last year 91 per cent of UK citizens, including 90 per cent of Scots, were regular internet users.

Within the European Union (as we still were in 2019) we were third behind only Denmark and Luxembourg when it came to logging in, and ahead of such giants as Germany and France.

If computer literacy equalled prosperity, as to some degree it must, we would have little to fear.

That is why Skye Camanachd’s fundraiser was so inclusive and so successful.

It would not have been as feasible in, for instance, Italy, where a full quarter of the population are strangers to the internet. In Bulgaria, with just 65 per cent of internet use, it would not even be worth trying.

In this country at least, the coronavirus pandemic has seen the internet come of age.

It has played a formidable part in keeping people connected, in easing the loneliness of elderly folk confined to their homes, in providing entertainment for young and old alike.

It has allowed people to work from home: a sector of employment which will almost certainly continue to expand when the virus has gone.

It has also, on a less important level, allowed at least one local newspaper to continue to contribute to its community.

It is perhaps too easy for the 90 per cent of us who use the internet regularly, without second thought, to forget the other ten per cent of our compatriots who are not so fortunate.

Ten per cent of us, that is half a million people in Scotland alone, cannot or do not use this new technology.

Most of them are elderly, but some are not.

Some are kids whose parents cannot afford it. Some are those very parents, who find themselves cut adrift from what in normal times had become a mainstay of our society, and which in these extraordinary times is helping to keep us together.

There will always be those who opt out: 100 per cent internet connectivity will not occur in any society at any time.

But those who wish to opt in, but are prevented because of poor broadband or expensive servers, should from now on be properly and fully enabled to do so.

The internet has become an essential utility, and it should formally be recognised as such.

It is as necessary to us as gas and electricity, telephones, the railways, decent sewage and a good water supply.

The United Kingdom had until recently a fine record in supplying and maintaining its utilities.

Some began in private hands and were nationalised for much of the 20th century. Others were and remain in the accountable control of local government.

Even when the larger British utilities were privatised during the 1980s and 1990s, which was the equivalent of the Conservative Party giving its friends in big business a licence to print money, their unique importance was recognised by the simultaneous establishment of independent watchdogs such as Ofgem and Ofcom – the second of which has, through the telephone network, a vague and ill-defined authority over the internet.

That vagueness should be clarified; that definition should be made in no uncertain terms.

Nobody made the internet an essential utility.

It has become one by popular consensus.

Now that it is no longer a recreational luxury, but a basic necessity for any full member of our 21st century society, it must be made affordable and properly accessible in every corner of the land.