Starting Point, as part of the DigiKnow network, has always been aware of some people’s struggle to get online. The issues of digital exclusion and data poverty existed before COVID-19, and we have previously acknowledged the need for broadband and affordable kit, as well as digital skills and confidence.  

But before COVID, being online was something that people worked towards, rather than had an instant need for. Previously we advised people about saving plans and where to buy from, to save money. We signposted to libraries, cafes (like ours), and other places within Stockport that allowed people to get online for free. It was a slow but robust process that felt like enough in the days before lockdown.  

The pandemic brought about the closure of many places that used to provide free public Wi-Fi access. We heard of instances in Greater Manchester where public transport providers cancelled their free Wi-Fi access, further affecting those who are digitally excluded and unable to participate fully in society and access support services online. It is this exclusion that creates challenges in itself, such as the inability to connect with loved ones and apply for jobs or welfare benefits, at a time when household finances are under significant pressure. 

The pandemic has exacerbated digital inequalities, with the divide still growing with the increase in the cost of living, rising fuel prices, and continued periods of isolation. We have seen people without credit suffering from the cost of pay-as-you-go contracts and, on occasions, paying up to £40 per week to keep their kids online while home-schooling. The combined cost of buying effective digital devices (not all smartphones are particularly smart) and paying for ongoing internet access means many families have to choose between buying food or utilities.  

People have looked to us to help them with something that is now essential. But access to affordable devices, and especially Wi-Fi, is an ongoing challenge, that needs collective decision-making to support those most at risk. In my last blog, I mentioned how connecting with the #OperationWifi campaign allowed us to share some of these stories in order to agitate for change.  

And we were excited about the news that Virgin Media O2 had linked up with Good Things Foundation to launch the first-ever National Databank and delighted when they asked Starting Point to be one of the ten pilot organisations to explore Virgin Media O2’s ambitions. 

The National Databank Programme 

We have worked with people who are suffering from data poverty, defined as “individuals, households or communities who cannot afford sufficient, private and secure mobile or broadband data to meet their essential needs.” (Lucas et al. 2020) 

By taking part in the pilot, we have been able to apply to the Databank to gain access to O2 data vouchers for six months. People have received data vouchers for up to 6GB of data, calls, and messages each month. 

We have been able to help local people like:

  • Zenya, who was unable to complete her volunteering course and help her children with schoolwork because she didn’t have access to data. She does now.
  • David, who has only recently been able to leave the house but was still looking for job opportunities that he could take on at home. He struggled to search for suitable jobs because he didn’t have access to data. He does now.
  • Cat, who was sharing her upstairs neighbour’s broadband to stay in touch with family and friends. With less than £20 to spare every month, she didn’t have access to data. She does now. 

Watch the video about the Databank, which we were proud was filmed in Stockport. 

Person in coffee shop

Following the success of the pilots, in January 2022 the program will expand to include even more community partners across the UK. Over the next few weeks, you might see their advert featuring a little blue bot. In the top left-hand corner is the Good Things Foundation logo, whose network we have been part of since 2010.  

Supported by 7.5 million gigabytes of O2 mobile data – worth £12.5 million – the Databank will help over 200,000 people get connected by the end of 2023. For every plan purchased with O2 between 1st November and 31st January, Virgin Media O2 is donating 10GB of data to the National Databank to help tackle data poverty.  

We know that the Databank is part of a bigger picture and there is still work to be done. We are really encouraged about the talk of social tariffs from network providers offering quality connection for an affordable cost. This is the long-term solution allowing everyone in our community to have affordable access to what we now know is an essential commodity.  

Thank you to every organisation involved in helping us to have achieved what we have. Please follow @OpWiFiAlliance on Twitter and pester your network provider to step up and support charities like Good Things Foundation in our collective efforts to make sure everyone has the privilege of being online.

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