The added impact of digital poverty in this cost of living crisis

The cost of living crisis will affect us all, but it is most damaging for those who already struggling. And those in digital poverty – living without a reliable connection to the internet – are the hardest hit of all, says James Prowse, Regional Development Manager of Hyperoptic.

In the last ten years, the world has moved online. And, through the pandemic, the speed of that change increased significantly – alarmingly, if you’re watching from the outside and seeing your vital services disappear into the internet. 

It is now the case that any individual or family without reliable internet access is at a significant disadvantage in all walks of life, but especially when it comes to mitigating the impact of rising costs. 

Searching for better deals – online. Finding a new job, or doing your current job from home – online. Getting access to healthcare – online. 

Earlier this year at Hyperoptic we commissioned a piece of research on Digital Poverty in Social Housing, in partnership with HACT (Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust), to better understand the problem and develop real solutions. 

Through the report, we identified recommendations for the housing sector, and recommendations for the telecommunications industry. 

In the short term, for social housing providers and local authorities, we see a need to integrate digital training within community services, framing inclusion as part of people’s interests or desired skills. There’s also a material benefit to be gained from providing access to straightforward devices, such as smart speakers that can lower barriers to digital engagement.

Data is important, too, for the efficient targeting of voucher schemes – low awareness of the benefits available is a barrier that we consistently see. 

And for those few that are applying for social tariffs, it should be recognised that there is still – sadly – a stigma around using these. Organisations should provide sensitive support to tenants making applications.

Longer term, the deployment of connected devices, such as smart thermostats, into social housing could help tenants to reduce energy costs. It’s too late for technologies like that to help this winter, but energy will always be one a tenant’s largest outlays, and planning to save costs in the future can really help. 

Of course, we believe that the latest broadband technology should be installed in existing buildings and included as standard in new developments. Full fibre is highly reliable, enables gigabit speeds today, and is upgradeable over time as demand for even faster connectivity emerges – another case of planning for the future.  

For our own industry, we feel the most urgent recommendation is for all providers to offer social tariffs of the same high quality and speed as standard packages, priced for those on a wide range of benefits. 

We’ve created social tariffs that give more than just the most basic connection. What use is a 10Mbps broadband service for a family of four in this day and age? That’s not reliable – it’s still digital poverty. Under our Fair Fibre Framework, we offer 50Mbps and 150Mbps social tariffs that actually fix the problem.

And more than just creating the offer, we believe it’s important that the tariffs are easily accessible and widely promoted. Awareness, as outlined above, is very low and it’s something that social housing agencies and broadband providers can work together to fix. 

We’ve committed to wide availability of social broadband tariffs, and making those tariffs as accessible as possible. Not buried in some undiscoverable part of our website and demanding that you call us, but one click from the homepage, and available on the phone, on email or on chat.

Sometimes, the reduced price tariff will still be too much for some households to afford, and that’s where it’s vital that broadband providers engage with local authorities and social housing organisations to provide further cost reductions for those identified as particularly in need. And it’s important to look beyond the home by enabling free digital access in community centres. The free 1Gbps connections that we provide in community hubs create a space where people can be online together, with help and support readily available – whether from a trained expert or a helpful neighbour. 

The telecom industry can also help beyond the provision of an affordable connection. Our research shows the value in supporting educational interventions through funding, provision of workshops, or the creation of training resources to boost digital skills and enable that first step on to the digital ladder.

Because we believe it’s incumbent on us as a broadband provider to take a leading role in tackling digital poverty and helping others to do the same. Everyone should be able to access a reliable connection, and everyone should be given the skills and confidence to use it.

James Prowse, Regional Development Manager, Hyperoptic

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