Calls grow for action to be taken on the digital divide
Broadband is considered a utility by so many and for those who stay engaged with the market should only cost around £25 to £35 a month for something marketed as superfast.
Now that lockdown is easing now is the time to look at what can be done to help those who cannot afford the costs of broadband as an additional bill each month. For families and others living on their own prior to the pandemic accessing local authority resources or doing homework online was something done when visiting a friend, or at the local library (if one exists), community centre or another free Wi-Fi service, the lockdown has taken a lot of those options away. Combine this with the rise on online schooling, those children without their own devices and/or a reliable Internet connection will have missed out on lessons and almost more importantly the shared experience of classmates.
The Guardian has a raft of quotes and there is little point in repeating all of those, but we feel there are a few things that we can add.
The infrastructure exists for broadband access to be a lot better in the UK, we say this because it is not unusual for people to be complaining about broadband speeds when faster options are already available. There are numerous problems though; if you are in rental accomodation the only fast service might be a provider not already installed in a property and a landlord is refusing installation of the new cable, length of minimum terms for those who are on short term tennancy agreements, worries over committing to spending month every month on broadband when income is very variable and the list can go on.
Also the issue is not just the Internet connection itself, but equipping children with devices suitable for what they need for schooling.
The idea of using eligibility for free school meals as the targeting mechanism for devices and subsidsied or free broadband at home seems a good one. If this was combined with other changes like the introduction of more widely available social tariffs, increasing other benefits for vulnerable groups to cover the costs of broadband.
Some of the work from Ofcom has attempted to address some of the long term broadband cost problems, but the end of contract notifications are still too relatively young to know what effect they are having and we suspect that stories of people paying £50/m for years on a broadband service when new customers can be paying just £30 will continue for a long time. One developing trend seems to be people being sold add-ons to their service by call centre staff that they do not need, so while one hand the broadband cost is lower once you add the various extras the cost goes back to the old price.
The problem currently is that there is no single body in the UK with the resources or power to address the issues around digital inclusion for childran and adults, charities and community groups do deliver essential support and help but that can only go so far. Just throwing money at the problem is not the solution, it needs the support network in place so that after 12 months devices are not just wedged under a sofa with a cracked screen or lost charging lead and so that when people have support questions they can get trustworthy advice.
Hanging out after school at the local library was never the cool thing to do and is never going to have the same appeal as going to the local burger/chicken chain store while killing time until a parent gets home from work. Time for some of the empty shops to be re-purposed for digital inclusion, think of a cross between after school club, community centre and tech support centre.