The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: The Prehistory and Early History of Home Internet Access in the UK, 1979-2001

  • Alexander Longworth-Dunbar

Student thesis: Phd


Like most rich English-speaking countries, by 2001, a significant proportion of people in the UK had home Internet access. What was unusual about the UK, however, was that the vast majority of these people had gone online only very recently: for most of the 1990s comparatively few people in the UK were Internet users, and this number was growing slowly. Then, from late 1998, home Internet access took off dramatically. This poses two key questions. Firstly, why were levels of home Internet use so low in the UK for so long? And secondly, why did use levels increase so dramatically from late 1998? In this thesis, I argue for the importance of looking beyond the Internet to other preceding and competing visions for mass market online services to answer these questions. I show how the slow growth in home Internet access in the UK was primarily the product of high metered telephone call costs, which had also undermined the growth of earlier online services. The roots of this problem lay in plans for a ‘cable revolution’ in the 1980s, strongly influenced by a vision of future online services as a form of interactive television and a desire to build new high-bandwidth communications networks, which established a unique model for the development of telecommunications based on competition in infrastructure. The persistent struggles of the cable industry in the UK critically undermined this model, and telephone call costs remained high, deterring significant numbers of people from accessing the Internet. The accelerated growth in Internet use from late 1998, then, was the result of an innovation in Internet access pricing which reduced the cost of going online significantly. Eventually, the government began to address the high cost of Internet access in the UK, but only when it considered widening access to be important for improving the country’s economic competitiveness. Overall, I argue, this reflected how the Internet was primarily of concern in UK policymaking only where it was articulated as relevant to the country’s economic performance.
Date of Award31 Dec 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJames Sumner (Supervisor)


  • telephone
  • information superhighway
  • cable
  • Internet
  • technology
  • history
  • computer

Cite this