MPs call for free broadband for 1.3m school children

Calls for the government to provide broadband connections and devices to the 1.3 million children eligible for free school meals have won the support of a cross-party group of MPs, former politicians such as Tony Blair and education experts.

The Coronavirus pandemic has seen schools, shops and offices shut down, with thousands of jobs lost or furloughed. Friends and family are unable to visit each other, while the home has become the centre of education, entertainment and work.

This situation has elevated the role of communications infrastructure significantly, as mobile and broadband networks have been essential for communicating with colleagues and loved ones, accessing business applications or education resources, and for entertainment purposes that lessen the constraints of restricted movement.

Free broadband 

However households without connectivity have struggled to pay bills and access financial support. Meanwhile, it is estimated that 700,000 children have been unable to complete schoolwork.

It will be some time before all primary and secondary students are back in the classroom and those behind the bill say that without urgent action, the damage already inflicted could be exacerbated.

“This policy is not a silver bullet,” said Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP behind the bill. “It will not fully close the digital divide or make up for months away from school. But it would make an immediate, tangible difference to some of the most vulnerable families in our society.”

During the pandemic, mobile and broadband operators have made efforts to ensure their networks can cope with additional demand. Access to key services has been ‘zero rated’ while data caps have increased and there have been pledges not to disconnect anyone. However this would not be of any benefit to anyone without an Internet connection to begin with.

During the 2019 General Election, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pledged to nationalise Openreach and provide free broadband to everyone in the UK. The move was denounced unnecessarily disruptive, expensive and complicated by the industry and observers.

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