Saturday, 21 January 2012

Free wi-fi for Brookside ... assuming it's legal

Great news on the front page of today's Shropshire Star (no prior communication of course) that Brookside is to get free wireless internet covering the whole estate.

This really is great news because the internet opens up so many opportunities for people in deprived areas.  Job hunting is infinitely easier to do with the internet, communicating is quicker and easier with the internet, information is a few clicks away.  I wouldn't got as far as some and say that broadband is a human right but it's an immensely important and useful tool and a key to social mobility.

A couple of years ago, when the first Brookside regeneration consultation was held under the previous Tory administration, I suggested free wireless internet for Brookside.  I have written and spoken about it several times, suggesting that a social internet provider could be set up to provide free and cut-price wireless internet using council-owned buildings to host the necessary equipment.

In fact, I am such a believer in free internet access that if you happen to be close to my house you'll find a free wi-fi hotspot - I practice what I preach!

I hope that Telford & Wrekin Council have done their research before promising this free internet access though and don't find themselves facing a legal challenge from one of the existing internet providers in Brookside.

Under article 102 of the Competition Act 1998, public bodies aren't allowed to provide services that can be provided by the private sector at below cost price.  I'd say free was below cost!

There is a "solidarity" defence where the public body can claim that they are providing the services at below cost because those services are prohibitively expensive when provided by the private sector.  However, you can get up to 24mbit broadband internet for as little as £3.25 per month for 12 months from TalkTalk at the moment and the number of households in Brookside with broadband internet is high so the solidarity defence doesn't apply.

I am a social capitalist.  I believe in a low tax, small state where it is easy for people to make money and keep as much of it as they can and where people who find themselves in need have a state-backed safety net.  I think there should be state-owned providers of gas, electricity, water, phone and internet providing free services to those in need and cut-price services to people on low incomes subsidised in part by selling full price services in fair competition with the open market.  I think this model would work in Brookside but I'm not sure it can be done without a change in the law.