What’s the problem?
Alongside a device, people need access to an internet connection to be able to fully utilise it. There are a range of connectivity options, from full-fibre superfast broadband to pay-as-you-go mobile data sims. Each of these needs to be understood alongside individual needs and circumstances, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. In an ideal world everyone has access to unlimited data at home, but there are economic barriers at both the individual level and at a government level to facilitate this.
Affordability and data poverty
Recent research by NESTA into data poverty in Scotland found that one in seven adults are experiencing data poverty and are struggling to afford sufficient, private, and secure access to the internet. In addition, one-in-ten people with monthly mobile contracts regularly run out of data before the end of the month.
Data poverty has been defined as the situation where individuals, households or communities who cannot afford sufficient, private, and secure mobile or broadband data to meet their essential needs. The Data Poverty Lab defines essential needs as a continuum rather than an absolute.
Those on the lowest incomes are, unsurprisingly, the most likely to face data poverty and be unable to connect to the internet. Over the past few years, more telecoms providers have started offering ‘social tariffs;’ providing low-cost connections to those on benefits such as Universal Credit. Following our call for affordable tariffs in 2018, BT, who are under statutory obligation to provide a social tariff, have improved their offer, upping the speed of the connection, raising the visibility of the tariff and, crucially, removing the monthly usage cap. Other telecoms providers have also started to offer voluntary social tariffs.
Social tariffs are not the most widely marketed tariffs and even with improvements there is still low awareness, never mind uptake, which is currently at 5.1% of eligible households. The low uptake of social tariffs is perhaps unsurprising given the evidence around financial literacy compounding data poverty. Most social tariffs require a credit check which can be a detrimental factor for many of those eligible, preventing access. This is an area which is ripe for further action and influence.
Perhaps the most jarring problem is that essential public services are not free at the point of access. For someone on a tariff with a data cap, connectivity is a resource that must be rationed. This means that any decision to use a public service online has a cost implication, which can impact and limit the ability of that person to do other essential tasks online. Consequently, essential public services now bear a financial cost for some people to access them.
There remains significant interest and investment in the issue of broadband infrastructure. However, the proportional use of the internet is similar across rural and urban areas. Undoubtedly there are challenges in terms of the speed and quality of internet connections in some rural communities. Additionally, some places in Scotland have no adequate fixed-line broadband and must rely on expensive, and sometimes compromised, alternatives such as satellite internet.
The Scottish Government has committed to achieving 100% superfast broadband coverage across Scotland and is delivering this through the R100 programme. There are also voucher schemes to support people who may never be able to access fixed-line superfast broadband. However, given the technical nature of these schemes and solutions, access to support is likely to be complex and expensive, and sometimes impenetrable for those with low digital skills.
Those that cannot afford or who lack the infrastructure to connect via home broadband will be reliant on mobile connectivity. This can often be more expensive, especially for pay-as-you-go connections. Remote and rural communities are more likely to struggle to get a reliable and sufficient mobile connection. The Scottish Government’s 4G Infill Programme is seeking to address mobile ‘not-spots’.
The 3G network will start to switch off in 2024. This will impact on those who rely on the 3G network for connectivity, or do not have a 4G or 5G enabled device. The 2G network will remain in place until at least 2033, but this network only enables voice calls and message, not data. This is likely to affect many people who still rely on the 3G network or who still have older devices.
What does good look like?
A partnership approach which recognises that the financial burden of internet access is crucial in supporting people experiencing data poverty. Social landlords and telecom providers in particular should examine their policies and practices to make connectivity easier, cheaper and fairer.
The ability to access uncapped data at home at an affordable price is crucial to addressing the issue of data poverty. With lower levels of financial literacy and poor uptake of social tariffs, there needs to be a greater emphasis on enabling digitally excluded people to access the lowest cost connections available to them.
Additionally, a high proportion of those who are digitally excluded live in social housing and therefore housing associations are a crucial partner in addressing this challenge. One specific area of action centres around how all housing associations can provide low cost internet access to tenants, building on the success of a number of pilot programmes in Scotland.
Access outside the home, with mobile devices, also remains important – not least for those unable to afford a home connection. Public Wi-Fi remains a crucial lifeline for people facing data poverty, and future investment needs to be targeted at providing this infrastructure in communities facing higher levels of deprivation.
There remains a need for long term data gifting schemes to support those experiencing sustained digital exclusion. Such schemes are an essential lifeline for individuals and families living in poverty.
What needs to happen?