There is no doubt that we all increasingly live our lives online: most of us use the internet for everything from socialising to shopping, job searching to paying bills. The move to providing council services digitally promises, and in many cases delivers, efficiency, innovation and improved offers and outcomes for residents.
But there are still significant segments of the population who are digitally excluded and don’t use digital services for a variety of reasons: having no suitable devices, lacking skills or confidence, a lack of trust in the internet or public services, or simply preferring other channels of communication. Those most likely to be digitally excluded are also likely to be dealing with other forms of exclusion: a low income, a disability, being care experienced or an older person.
Often overlooked in the digital exclusion debate is the cost of being online: how much individuals and households have to pay for good quality, reliable internet connections. The importance of a home internet connection isn’t obvious until you contemplate not having one. If you had to rely on limited mobile data, what would you prioritise? How many essential services would you suddenly have no access to? How would you communicate with your social worker, pay your council tax bill or apply for a school place for your child? We looked earlier this year at how digital and broadband services could provided as a universal basic service, but there are other approaches to wider affordability.
We at Promising Trouble, a social enterprise and research organisation, have just published research into the relative affordability of home internet for households of different income levels. We wanted to know if the broadband market is providing the right products for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
We found that low income households spend a much bigger proportion of their disposable income on home broadband than the median or most well off households. The lowest income households spend 4.7% of their income, after housing costs, on broadband, compared to 1.3% for the median household and just 0.4% for the richest. Poorer households have also seen their spending increase more in recent years than everyone else: their expenditure has gone up by 0.38% compared to 0.04% for the richest.
One potential solution to the affordability crisis is social tariffs: a cheaper tariff offered by most broadband providers. Unfortunately, social tariffs are not currently solving the problem. Take-up is very low, with around 5% of people who qualify for one actually on a social tariff. Most provide a slower service than mainstream packages, and there are millions of low income households that can’t access one because they don’t meet the eligibility criteria.
Even if everyone that needed one could access a social tariff, they would still not bridge the gap. For all sorts of low income people, including those out of work on universal credit, those on a low income receiving universal credit, those receiving disability benefits and those on pension credits, a social tariff still costs relatively more than a standard broadband package for a median income household.
So what can councils do? Many local and combined authorities already have extensive digital inclusion programmes, providing everything from devices to training for their residents. Many are working in partnership with the third sector and industry to provide wider access to the internet. Free wifi is often available in community venues, council buildings and libraries. These activities are absolutely invaluable, but access will depend on what’s on offer locally. And they aren’t the same as having your own secure, affordable connection at home.
That’s why we’re working with communities in South London, with the support of Lambeth and Southwark councils, to find community-owned solutions. Over the next year we’ll be developing a pilot project to offer extremely cheap or free home broadband to a local community, and working alongside them to understand how this affects their health and wellbeing.
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Anna Dent is Head of Research at Promising Trouble. She leads their work on community access to and ownership of technology and has previously worked in London local and regional government.
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