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. is making a major bet on AI and data. It’s also funding sci-fi projects that dream of a better world. See our story about:

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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Wireless carriers seek to offer customers free internet if they switch to 5G

Major cellphone carriers plan to offer their customers free internet for four years if they ditch their old, slower wireless connections.

The carriers want to use that in a new program to try to entice customers to buy devices that run their newer, faster 5G internet services.

The plan comes as the five largest mobile networks are vying for dominance over 5G, an next-generation wireless service due to start rolling out starting next year, when regulators gave the networks the green light to do so. The big companies are already stocking stores with 5G phones and other gear designed to supercharge existing wireless networks. But one of the main attractions of buying phones and a device called a home hub is that they will be capable of running in the forthcoming 5G networks.

Yet the superfast 5G wireless networks are more than six years away, at the earliest.

They require much more spectrum — or airwaves — than traditional 4G networks. And so right now the rules are stacked against carriers using 5G to sell the next-generation internet service. For one thing, carriers are still figuring out which airwaves will be in demand and how much bandwidth they can actually offer. And even if they figure out the economics, they’re still bringing new devices to market — which is more of a problem in the U.S. and Europe.

The carriers are proposing a program that lets consumers still get 5G but not pay for data anymore. But they don’t tell customers what network service they’ll actually get when they buy a 5G device and without a contract.

The new 5G service would use the current 4G LTE network as a backup. That means the customer isn’t going to get super-fast 4G or 5G speeds, just the ability to stream video in one service, theoretically, and talk and text in the other. In Britain, carriers plan to offer free internet for four years. The program would offer free internet to consumers with 4G coverage or coverage similar to that of 3G or old-fashioned 2G.

The carriers would then tell customers if their old service has been converted to the faster 5G network and if the network they’re on is one of the ones that will be upgraded to 5G. Because it would work on the 4G network, those who don’t have LTE coverage would still get access to faster speeds when they move to 5G. A customer’s speeds could vary, depending on their location.

So the carriers would install both 5G and 4G equipment to their existing network equipment so customers don’t experience different network speeds or when they switch networks.

T-Mobile, the fourth largest wireless carrier in the U.S., plans to start the new service in 2019 with a “5G Essentials” plan that would include free internet access, but make other services, like mobile TV and mobile texting, available at a cost. The company has already been doing this in parts of the U.S. for a few years.

Another carrier is expected to launch its plans soon, but has not revealed its name. It is owned by Franco-American Orange SA and is now called 3 Group. Its 5G service will be based on existing 4G LTE equipment installed on the 4G network.

AT&T has unveiled plans to launch its 5G plans by the end of 2019, while Verizon plans to launch its 5G service by the end of 2020. Sprint, which is majority owned by Japan’s SoftBank, plans to launch a similar service by 2020.

The carriers have been testing this new service for several years in the U.S. while the broader industry has been waiting for a green light from the FCC. The FCC is expected to approve the new service, making it possible to offer the service at home to consumers who already own a smartphone and are not on contract.

The proposal would also let wireless providers resell their own 5G service, which could attract customers who would go with a new company over the older one. But that would require the FCC to further loosen the rules — something the FCC has not proposed doing in any other country.