Control + Shift – The privilege of browsing

Have you ever seen this text of doom? Some of you won’t have experienced such a thing, but others will have shared that feeling of scrambling to find out what the date is and how many more days you have until your new allowance is granted. It’s bad enough when you just want to WhatsApp your mates at the bus stop or check out the latest Christmas ad on social media; but what happens when you are searching for jobs, homeschooling your kids or trying to order a prescription? 

What is data poverty and why is it a problem?

We have always been aware of the struggle that some people have to get online. Not all smart phones are particularly smart and confidence sometimes plays a bigger part than skills and aptitude. This said, up until the beginning of this year most of us thought this was about affordability of equipment and the opportunity to learn new skills. Who had heard the term “data poverty?”. Surely you either have access to the internet or you don’t? But there was no poverty premium attached to this was there? This isn’t comparable to the fact that top-up gas meters, most likely in the poorest of homes in our country, are more expensive than paying for your gas by direct debit? Nothing like having to pay £2 to withdraw cash from ATMs on deprived highstreets where banks have disappeared rather than the free services from banks still standing in affluent neighborhoods? Broadband is broadband is it not?  

At the beginning of lockdown, lots of people contacted us asking for advice about getting their kids on home learning apps like Seesaw and SPAG.com. Some said they couldn’t afford the hike in prices, in some occasions up to £40 top ups each week to stay online. Others just wanted advice as to what buildings that have free WIFI, like libraries, might still be open. So, we put a call out: “Who is struggling to stay online right now?” Lots of people came back to tell us not to fret. Contracts that might cost only £7 per month have had their data caps lifted and all is okay right now, but as we started to dig we began to realise the magnitude of this issue. The uncapped data was great for those who had a contract in place but what about the millions of people on Pay As You Go, unable to secure a contract phone due to poor credit, lack of a bank account or temporary accommodation? What is happening to these people? Why are they paying more?

The picture of digital exclusion in this country looks something like this: 

  • 7 million people did not have home internet access in 2019.
  • 23% of 5-15 year olds in the poorest households do not have access to both an educationally ideal device and broadband.
  • At least 1 in 5 adults who are offline said cost was a barrier.

Put bluntly digital exclusion effectively means exclusion from the life most of us experience, especially in a lockdown.  No access to shopping online, news, schooling, job searching and conversations. 

This week, we have seen Vodafone offer incentives responding to the pandemic. One sees schools able to access free data for their pupils who need it the most, and another sees discounted tariffs for those out of work because of COVID-19.  Both very welcomed moves from the telecoms industry, but as organisers, we look at the root causes of social injustice. The fact that those with financial privilege pay less is an injustice and it isn’t enough for us to settle for 6 month offers of support from one company. Now is the time to value broadband just as we do water, gas and electricity, and those who do have access to cost effective packages need to come together to influence telecoms to support those who need it the most. Ideas such as pooling and sharing of data limits, encouraging more people to access contract packages by removing credit checks and rolling out fast and cost effective coverage across the country are just some solutions to this. So now is the time, to get our phone on charge, use our collective voices and work to shift and share power. #OperationWifi is campaigning for data for everyone. Join our movement here:

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