During the Summer of 2015 it was announced that the BBC would pay for a free television licence for everyone in the UK over the age of 75. In 2013–14 the cost of providing a free licence to the over-75s was £608m. The cost in 2013–14 was paid by a different bit of the public sector.
There was a lack of debate before the announcement was made but there was also something more worrying. A lack of creativity and ambition.
For £475m per year, much less than we have been paying during the sixteen years that the free license fee has existed, we could give everyone over the age of 75 free TV, free access to the internet and ongoing free training so that they can use the internet however they wish. This would get about 2.5 million more people on the internet helping to address the issue of digital inclusion and realise economic and social benefits from getting more people online.
Some of the over 75s will choose not to use the internet and simply use their new TV just like they used their old one. That is ok. There would be wider benefits for the rest of society.
We would save hundreds of millions of pounds a year of spend on legacy broadcast television technology. We would also free up space in the radio spectrum that can be used to improve mobile internet coverage. Unless we improve mobile internet coverage we will continue to struggle to get rural areas, and the people who live there, access to the internet. This impacts on economic growth and productivity. It can also stop an ambulance finding someone in need.
Poor mobile coverage will cause other problems in the future. It will slowdown the takeup and benefits of new technology such as drones, driverless cars or whatever new idea appears in the next 5 or 10 years. There are huge long term benefits from better internet access across the entire country.
By taking this more imaginative and ambitious approach we would help the country set off on a path towards a more digital Britain. A digital Britain that works for everyone. A digital Britain where everyone is online with the skills to know how to use it will be good for the people who live here. If we arm ourselves and others with the right skills we would have more control over our lives.
We can think more creatively and ambitiously about the free TV licence. We can give the over 75s free TV whilst also getting 2.5 million more people online.
It’s people that make Britain brilliant. Let’s get more people online and make Britain brilliant at the internet.