The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the shift to remote working, with millions of UK employees working remotely for a significant proportion of the last few months, and many looking set to do so longer-term. While working from home has many perks, a major sticking issue is internet connection and usage. The UK’s broadband infrastructure is ageing and not fit for purpose at present, and only ten per cent of UK homes are able to access full-fibre broadband connections. This means a significant number of businesses, as well as workers, are having to grapple with slow internet connections that have an adverse effect upon their productivity.
Since working from home can increase internet bills, many are also uncertain about who covers this additional cost. Meanwhile, if your home or businesses’ internet connection is not up to scratch, who is responsible for addressing this? And what rights do workers or employers have in that respect?
The state of play for UK broadband
Britain lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to broadband connectivity. Though it is the world’s fifth-largest economy, it ranks a miserable 35th out of 37 countries assessed by the OECD for the proportion of fibre in its total fixed broadband infrastructure. At present, most of the UK’s internet infrastructure is made up of older copper wire connections that find it difficult in places to withstand the pressure of the millions of people logging in from home. Meanwhile, although high-speed, full-fibre broadband has begun to be put in place in some areas, and provides faster and more reliable speeds, 90% of homes cannot access this.
As a consequence, many workers suffer from patchy broadband and businesses are concerned that their performances are being adversely affected. While mobile broadband is being used more frequently to access tools such as video-conferencing platforms, 4G quality is highly dependent on where you live.
There are approximately 3 million households and businesses still relying on copper-based connections that provide less robustness and are subject to more frequent dropouts. As well as this, almost 7 per cent of homes in England and Wales do not have a robust fixed internet connection, while nearly 5 million Brits do not use internet at all. Such rural areas, ‘not-spots’ and people who are not digitally connected, are at risk of being left behind as remote working becomes the norm.
Although the present Government has committed to the roll-out of full-fibre broadband and investment in critical national infrastructure, there are concerns that this technology will not be deployed in time, and that the pledges made so far have not been backed up by action or policy. A report from the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank warned recently that the Government’s target to provide full-fibre broadband to all homes by 2025 is likely to be missed without sweeping reforms of telecoms policy.
As such, PowWowNow has launched its Connecting the UK campaign, which calls on the Government to consider expediting the rollout of full-fibre broadband to ensure the economy can recover from the impact of Covid-19.
What are worker and business rights when it comes to internet connectivity?
Each home and business has the right to request a download speed of 10 Mbit/s and an upload speed of 1 Mbit/s. Anyone suffering speeds below this can therefore request to get their connection updated. However, if this update will cost in excess of £3400 to connect a home or business, you will be required to foot the bill of this excess cost.
Setting up a new connection can take up to two years, which means that a quick turnaround can’t be relied upon- which is problematic at present, given the fact a good internet connection is a necessity when working from home. Some areas of the UK are also liable to be too expensive to connect; people have reportedly been quoted excess costs of up to £1m.
With regard to remote working, there are no hard and fast rules about whether the employer or the employee should pay for internet fees. Employers do not usually have a legal obligation to contribute, but there may be a certain amount of provision in certain employee agreements setting out what should happen if a worker incurs costs associated with working from home.
It can be problematic when internet is a bill the worker is already otherwise paying, and this is often the case with Wi-Fi bills. In many cases, it is more difficult to prove there were additional costs that the employee had to cover, and that the employer needs to take on. In order to resolve any difficult situations surrounding Wi-Fi payments, an open dialogue is recommended between employers and employees to discuss what, if any, reimbursements can be made. Many companies have chosen, during the pandemic, to contribute to workers’ internet bills, providing perks such as work-from-home allowances that include paying for any additional home working equipment that may be needed, for example.
Is change needed?
Employers must ensure workers fully comprehend their Wi-Fi rights and are encouraged to request an upgrade to their internet connection if this is required. In addition, businesses should work to build a positive workspace in which employees feel able and encouraged to raise any concerns or queries they may have with regard to internet connectivity. There needs to be a transparent and open dialogue between workers and companies so that all are united and able to effectively transition towards longer-term working from home environments.
Although some businesses might be able to contribute to workers’ broadband payments, others may not be in the same position. Nonetheless, there are other ways companies can work to support their workers at present. For example, business leaders must ensure they are adhering to remote working best practices, by investing in the appropriate tools and technology such as video calling platforms and workspace communication tools, so that workers can remain productive away from the office.
Above all, businesses and workers must come together to call on the Government to commit to ensuring every person in the UK has access to full-fibre ultrafast broadband, and prevent rural areas and places with reduced connectivity from being excluded from economic growth. Radical changes will be needed in how the public sector uses its buying power to support demand for broadband, and to offer certainty to the industry that funding new networks will be worthwhile. Reforms of broadband policy will be necessary. Internet infrastructure is crucial to business economic recovery in a post-Covid society, when remote working will be the norm.