Internet vs Public Libraries

The following was written for the Voices for the Library campaign and distributed earlier today in response to comments that were made about the role of libraries in bridging the digital divide and how providing everyone with Internet would be cost effective.

This argument has been doing the rounds this morning, most notably on BBC Breakfast.  The argument goes as follows:

Libraries are, for over 9 million people in this country, the only place that they can connect to the Internet.  Therefore, why not just connect everyone to the Internet as this would be cheaper and more efficient than providing access through a public library.  With Internet connections at around £100 per year, surely it would be cheaper?

There are many things wrong with this statement, so let’s have a look at how much such a scheme would cost.  Presumably, many of the people who do not have Internet connections do not have a computer either.  The most recent statistics suggest that 7 million households in the UK do not have an Internet connection.  1.4 million said that cost of equipment was the main reason why they did not have an Internet connection – other reasons given include lack of skills or they felt they ‘didn’t need it’.

A good quality computer costs something in the region of £300-500.  The cost of an Internet connection over a year is around £200 (taking £15 per month as an average for broadband).  So, taking the figures above, how much would it cost to connect everyone?

If we take the 7 million households figure first and provided them all with a broadband connection it would cost a grand total of £1.4 billion (of course that figure would be ongoing, every year).  If we took the 1.4 million households who said that computers were too expensive and provided each of those with a computer, the cost would equal £560 million (using £400 as an average cost for a desktop PC). If we were to consider that there are likely to be more households than this without a computer (7 million without an Internet connection remember), the cost could potentially be £2.8 billion.  So to provide everyone with a computer would cost between £560 million and £2.8 billion.  Again, this would not be a one-off payment as computers will need to be updated after a certain period of time to make sure they remain functional (usually every four years or so).

So, the total cost of providing everyone with an Internet connection would be…..

£2-4.2 billion with an annual bill of at least £1.4 billion.

Of course these figures do not take into account things such as software, anti-virus and, most importantly, the training and support that many would need to ensure they can use the equipment and the Internet.  Provision of all these extras could push the bill to over £5 billion (again with an annual bill of at least£1.4 billion plus the cost of upgrades every 3-4 years).  Just to compare that figure, public libraries cost the UK £1.1 billion every year.

So, which option makes sense financially in a time of spending cuts?  It seems fairly obvious.

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One thought on “Internet vs Public Libraries

  1. Completely unsubstantiated, but the last I heard the public library service cost around £14/ p.a. for every council tax payer around these parts – not much in light of your figures above.

    The amount is not the point though. The point is that information – and the support to access, understand, and use it – is fundamental to a just society.

    The information we need to act as informed citizens should be free at the point of use.

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