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Inexpensive internet access is good — in the U.K.

Screenshot by Adam Satariano/CNET

Free Internet is a big deal in much of the world.

In many countries, it’s not even possible to access the web without paying for a subscription. In the United States, however, all you need to subscribe to a broadband Internet service is a regular TV service. In other words, the world does have more Internet — and rich people have more Internet.

Now, the government of the United Kingdom is proposing a new plan to fix this situation. That’s a shame. But there’s no need to worry about what the U.K. might be doing to Internet access in the next decade.

What the U.K. is proposing is a social program that would give free, bundled internet access to households that are eligible for the National Health Service (NHS). The idea of providing this type of subsidized access in the U.K. is not a new one. It’s actually been tried in other countries with far less success. In fact, a similar British plan was almost entirely a waste of time.

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Well, at least you could get an hour of internet if you wanted it.

Pioneered in Britain in 2010, the “My Choice” project was supposed to get millions of people connected. The plan was so simple: people could sign up for an “Internet Share Pack” for just a few pounds (US$5, £4.50) a month. After that, they’d be able to access online resources through NHS sites and educational sites.

But it backfired in spectacular fashion.

The Guardian reported the plans’ dismal failure in May 2015, in a series of articles that detailed the confusing policy; the nearly worthless cost of the scheme; and the fact that many people simply never signed up at all. A working group was supposed to meet to propose changes to the scheme, but no one showed up.

Not many people ended up signing up for the program either. Research firm Kantar Worldpanel Consulting reported that the only way to qualify for the pack was if you lived in a slightly wealthier, generally English neighbourhood. The way the data gathered about households was used to calculate eligibility was also arbitrary, with total household income not counting government benefits such as housing. And it’s unclear if information gathered about children was legally secure, or if they had to be less than 13 years old to qualify.

And in the UK, it wasn’t even a policy that people were signing up for. People could sign up for it, but they had to sign up for a regular Internet service that they had to pay for in order to get the free internet access. Then, people got annoyed when they found they were barely getting any use out of the package — even though they were told it included easy access to doctors, leisure facilities and educational resources.

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In January 2015, most of the companies mentioned in the Guardian’s series of stories (like Freeserve, Sky, Tiscali and Virgin Media) stopped offering packages of basic internet access. The project was shut down by the NHS a few months later.

The internet in the U.K. remains a wildly unequal place. That’s why it’s so important that there is a well-connected Internet. The internet was the global internet before broadband became a thing. People in developing countries still can’t use the internet without going through a complicated and complicated process, and it still costs less money in many parts of the world to buy a smartphone than it does to afford an Internet service.

That’s not to say the U.K. plan is guaranteed to fail. On the contrary, it may end up working if it can implement an alternative version of the program that makes it easier for poorer people to access the Internet and provide education and health benefits. The overall goal of the program should be to end the divide between the haves and have-nots in the digital world. If you believe that, then it’s worth putting the costs of this social program aside and recognizing that the internet is a global common good that everyone deserves access to.

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