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When the choice is internet or food, broadband policies aren't working

The digital divide is a massive global problem. Even in wealthy countries, families are forced to make compromises to ensure their children have the required internet connection for remote learning.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
13 min read
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Michelle was worried their family would lose internet access -- again. They'd fallen behind on their broadband payments, and were just days away from being cut off.

Michelle (who prefers gender-neutral pronouns and whose name has been changed to protect their privacy), together with their partner and 13-year-old daughter, has been homeless since February of last year. They live in temporary accommodation, with Michelle supporting the family financially by working as a cleaner.


"We've struggled with internet bills, we can't always afford data for my daughter's mobile either," the 31-year-old from North Lanarkshire, Scotland said in an interview. "At the moment my daughter is doing schoolwork with mobile data and on her phone." 

Locating local internet providers

At times, their daughter's friends take pictures of schoolwork and send them along so their daughter can copy down the assignments.

Michelle appealed to the family's broadband provider, Virgin Media, about getting reconnected, but didn't hear back. The company wouldn't release the line so they could go with a cheaper provider, Michelle said.

Locating local internet providers

After this story first appeared, Virgin Media moved Michelle to a cheaper bundle and arranged a payment plan, and their service has been restored. According to Virgin Media, the company had made Michelle aware on Jan. 12 that it couldn't unrestrict their services until a minimum balance was paid on their account. The company also said Michelle's minimum term ended in September, which allowed them to move to another provider if they wished.

Michelle isn't alone in struggling to afford internet access. Some British families have to cut down on food every other month to pay for broadband to complete online schooling, according to Helen Milner, CEO of digital inclusion charity the Good Things Foundation.

"We're a wealthy, developed country, and we shouldn't be having that level of inequality -- particularly when we could do something about it," Milner said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a number of previously ignored social inequalities in the UK, among them the fact that the digital divide is a real and present problem in the country. As an internet connection became a vital lifeline for work, education , ordering food and speaking with a doctor, it became apparent that swaths of the population were being left behind.

And the impact has been devastating, especially for children across the country who were already living in poverty. When school was canceled nationwide, as it has been for two separate monthslong stints now in the UK, the inequalities many of these children already lived with on a daily basis were exacerbated by their lack of internet and device access, which left them excluded from the education they were entitled to.

A report published by UK innovation foundation Nesta in December said data poverty is a common problem among disadvantaged groups. Telecoms regulator Ofcom said that 2% of UK households with children have no access to the internet, 4% have only mobile access and 9% have no home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. Many families across the country felt the financial strain of the pandemic last year, with almost one-fifth of households, 4.7 million in total, struggling to pay their broadband or mobile data bills.

It doesn't help that the UK is falling behind when it comes to broadband -- both in terms of speed and fiber availability. Fewer than one in five households in the UK have access to a full fiber connection, according to Ofcom , which notes the country is languishing near the bottom of the 37 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in the fiber coverage stakes.

Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Foundation and its subsidiary the Alliance for Affordable Internet have long been campaigning both to close the digital divide globally and for internet access to be considered a universal human right. The conversations have usually been about solutions for lower-income countries. But that's changed dramatically over the past year, according to A4AI Deputy Director and Policy Lead Eleanor Sarpong.

"This is one where I think that there's a lot of learning that's going to come from developing countries," Sarpong said. "What's happening is a lot of Western countries are struggling because in the past, they've just assumed that they were OK."

Exposing the UK's data poverty problem

Darren Jones serves as the member of Parliament for Bristol North West, a constituency in the south of England. In an interview, he described how his constituency includes some of the poorest communities with the lowest educational outcomes sitting next to one of the wealthiest and most educated suburbs in the country. For those living in the poorer areas, digital poverty has long been an issue, but before COVID-19 it was "more of an inconvenience than an absolute barrier to access to services," Jones said.

Jones discussed how private schools in his area were on Google Classroom the moment lockdown kicked in, and students were immediately able to access the content needed to continue their education. "They probably already had laptops and iPads and good broadband on the whole, and so they were able to kind of get on with it," he said.

Some of the state schools in his constituency, meanwhile, were struggling. Many families lacked laptops, Wi-Fi or both. It was clear children weren't engaging with their teachers, which worried Jones, who previously served as the chairman of the board of governors at a school and knew how harmful such disconnection could be.

"Even one day out of the curriculum has a significantly important impact on kids' ability to progress and attain," he said. "And so the idea of how much time has been missed and the long-term consequences for them for their careers and also for our economy is really very significant."

A number of initiatives have been put in place by the Department for Education, mobile networks and broadband providers over the past year to ensure children can access the internet. Almost all UK mobile networks allow children to request an increased mobile data allowance, providing they meet certain criteria, including not having fixed broadband access at home. Internet providers have also zero-rated a long list of educational resources to ensure unlimited data access for children regardless of their background.

Another program allows local education authorities to apply for a 4G router for students. The Department for Education has also been distributing laptops and tablets to children who don't have access to mobile devices for school work.

But there have been issues with this initiative. Educators have reported delays and rationing of devices, with requests from schools not being met and allocations being slashed at the last minute. In January, the BBC reported that a school in the north of England had discovered malware on government-issued devices given to students.

There's also wider evidence to suggest that in spite of all the measures being put in place, some students are still being left behind. Last month, charity the Social Mobility Foundation published a survey of 863 teenagers, over 40% of whom said they didn't have access to reliable broadband. Over a third of respondents also said they hadn't been contacted by their schools about their tech needs.

Ashley Brown, a computer science teacher from the Midlands, said that his own school, which serves a low-income area, managed to quickly jump onto Microsoft Teams for lessons, but that there was a scramble for laptops as it became apparent just how many children lacked them.

The school has allocated some laptops, but it doesn't have a complete list of the students who are in need. "There will be some students who just haven't had a laptop at all," said Brown. "For sure they'll have slipped between the net."

This is the case for Michelle's daughter. Michelle said they've felt too "ashamed and embarrassed" to talk to the school about extra provisions, though they're working separately on sourcing a tablet for her.


Many children are being forced to do schoolwork on their phones.

Richard Bailey/Getty

Michelle's daughter isn't alone in working primarily on her phone, according to Brown. There are two students in one of Brown's classes who share laptops with their parents who use them for work. As a teacher, it means being "really flexible" both about when work is submitted and in what format. Some students will submit pictures they've taken of written work, he said.

At Brown's school, and many others, the most vulnerable students -- those identified as having absolutely no access to the internet or devices, among other issues -- are allowed to continue coming into school with the children of key workers.

This isn't possible for Michelle's daughter, as Michelle's partner is immuno-deficient, and going to school would mean mixing every day with the children of health workers directly involved in treating COVID patients. It's a risk they can't afford to take.

"I have no idea how other people are managing," Michelle said. "This virus has definitely widened the poverty gap."

The case for a social tariff

The issue of data poverty among children became a major topic of concern among politicians when schools shut last March. After the summer break, children returned to school full time in September, pushing the issue down the political agenda. But  the debate was reinvigorated when schools closed again at the start of 2021, following the outbreak of the UK COVID variant.

At the end of January, Jones, who's also a former lawyer for BT , introduced his Internet Access Bill in Parliament. The bill calls for a universal service obligation that compels internet providers and mobile carriers to offer a low-cost "social tariff" that would allow disadvantaged families to access the internet without breaking the bank (though there's no word yet as to exactly how much it'll cost).

"It's estimated that up to 2 million children in our country don't have the internet access they need to learn from home," Jones said in his speech introducing the bill. "And while temporary solutions are welcome and important during the immediacy of the lockdown, mobile data uplifts and free access to certain educational websites won't provide the long-term solution that we need to tackle digital poverty in our country."

If the UK wants evidence that such an idea can work, said Sarpong, it need only look to Ecuador, which introduced its own social tariff back in 2018. With more than 1 million Ecuadorian families living below the poverty line, 1GB of data could cost as much as 22% of their monthly income. While many families owned a mobile phone, many couldn't afford the extra costs of actually connecting it. 

Ecuador's telecom watchdog created a social tariff linked to the country's social welfare system, which lowered the cost of data from 10 cents per megabyte to 1 cent per megabyte for about 900,000 people. "The key thing is, it's been done somewhere, and it's working very well," said Sarpong.

Jones' bill quickly garnered cross-party support, including from former Conservative secretaries of digital, culture, media and sport. "They all said yes very quickly, because I think everybody agrees it's a good idea," said Jones.

But Sarpong is concerned that an inferior product might be offered to children from low-income households, which wouldn't truly level the playing field. This is true both of the quality of the connectivity and of the devices they're using. For the A4AI, having access isn't enough -- it's meaningful access that matters most. 

"We also don't want a divide within the experience that the children are having," Sarpong said.

Quality of internet access is one issue Jones is working through in the all-party parliamentary group he's set up to look into data poverty. The BT Basic package (BT's own low-cost service for low-income households) offers only 10Mbps download speeds and 1Mbps upload speeds, which is fine for general internet browsing, but not much more. In relation to the social tariff, Jones doesn't want people to experience problems due to speed or to have any caps on usage, he said.

The joint initiative between the government and UK networks to increase data allowances for disadvantaged students has been helpful, according to Brown, who said uptake among students at his school has been very high.

Brown also said he's witnessed a huge disparity in the quality of access. "We have kids who had internet, or maybe had the lowest-speed internet -- so yes, they had the means of access, but [they] didn't have the means of consistent access or reliable access," he said. This becomes an even bigger problem when there are multiple children all trying to access separate Microsoft Teams sessions simultaneously.

Another issue for Jones is working out who qualifies for the social tariff. Ideally, Jones would like to see it open to everyone who receives universal credit, but ultimately, he thinks the best option is to tie eligibility to free school meals. He's also determined to reduce the number of hoops people need to jump through to authenticate eligibility, which he described as being a complicated bureaucratic process right now.

Internet service providers in the UK are also supporting the movement and working with Jones to shape the social tariff and resolve access issues. BT Corporate Affairs Director Mat Sears said in an interview that the company was in "full support" and recognizes the critical importance of the initiative for low-income families. In the meantime, BT is refreshing its BT Basic package to improve speeds, which Sears said should broaden eligibility as much as fourfold.

But there are some for whom even a social tariff would be unaffordable, and Milner's Good Things Foundation is working to find completely free options for people on very low incomes. It's setting up a data poverty lab, with the hope of talking to people for whom internet access is unaffordable and developing solutions for them. One example Milner gives is people in Australia donating their unused data at the end of the month.

Being able to give leftover data to a charity that would distribute it to children in need "actually feels like a perfect solution," she said.

Beyond the pandemic

Children in the UK finally began their staggered return to school last week as the country started to reopen. But that doesn't mean data poverty, or child poverty more widely, in the UK will suddenly cease to exist.


A sign warns motorists of children playing in front of a residential development in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the worst areas in the UK for child poverty.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

It isn't likely to immediately slip off the political agenda either, thanks to Jones' bill and the work of the all-party parliamentary group, but advocates for digital inclusion are hoping that it also remains a long-term priority for the wider government.

"The reason we need a long-term solution for this is because online learning isn't just going to be a temporary thing, especially with the amount of catchup that kids are going to have to get through," he said.

More widely, he added, the digitization of public services really needs to be accompanied by a universal service obligation to prevent people from being excluded. That universal service obligation already exists when it comes to broadband, but the government has yet to extend it to mobile internet access.

Shifting public services online has been a prominent trend over the past year and has been particularly noticeable in the health care sector. Milner is also worried that the trend might leave those who are already digitally excluded further behind if they aren't given ways to access those services -- something she believes wouldn't make "economic sense." 

"Those digital services have already been invested in," she said. "Having people with better access and better skills is going to be good for prosperity."

There's compelling evidence to suggest that working to eliminate digital poverty in the UK would be a positive thing for the country's gross domestic product. A 2018 report conducted by the Centre for Economic and Business Research concluded that the net value to the UK economy of investing in closing the digital divide by 2028 would be £21.9 billion (about $30.5 billion).

Milner says it's a good moment for the government, working together with businesses, to set a goal to close the digital divide in the UK in the next five years. Getting there will require a coordinated strategy and long-term thinking of the kind we've seen little of during the past year, as politicians have scrambled to tackle the pandemic.

As the UK government faces an increasingly digital future, it'll have to absorb the changes to the way we work and learn that the pandemic has wrought. It'll have to adjust its thinking accordingly if it's to achieve its stated goal of "leveling up," so individuals and even entire geographic regions aren't left behind.

Evidence suggests that leaving these areas unconnected now could be setting them up for future failure, according to Mathew Lawrence, founder and director of the think tank Common Wealth. "There's really marked disparities often tracking the relative wealth or poverty from an area in terms of who has access to quality and reliable internet," he said.

But among those working toward the goal, there's a sense of optimism that the digital divide isn't an intractable problem for the UK. People know how to solve it, and with the right willingness and commitment from the political and business worlds, they feel they will. Many of the solutions won't rack up a huge bill, and any money that's spent appears to offer an enticing return on investment (£15 for every £1 spent, or about $21 for every $1.40 spent, according to the CEBR report).

Milner praised the willingness of the government and networks to provide free data and devices to tackle the crisis as it's been happening, but she expressed concern over whether it's enough to create lasting change. "Come the summer, those children will still be living in low-income families," she said. "They will have the tablet or the laptop to do schoolwork, but actually they won't have that affordable internet."

In spite of their challenges, Michelle feels lucky because their daughter is happy, enjoys learning, gets her schoolwork finished without any hassle and doesn't feel as if she's fallen behind, which was Michelle's biggest concern. When the family's been cut off from the internet, Michelle has set work for their daughter based on what the class is studying. And they buy documentaries from charity shops and downloads podcasts for their daughter to listen to while Michelle's at work.

Still, there's a lot of personal pressure that comes with worrying about their daughter's education. "Emotionally, I feel like I'm failing," Michelle said. "I have to work to support us, I'm having to help my daughter over the phone when she is stuck, or at night when I get home. ... Every time I look at her I want to cry. I want to keep her safe, but I also want her to have a chance in the future."

Update, March 8: Adds update and comment from Virgin Media.