Tackling “Hidden” Digital Exclusion

Today I met with Muriel Stretton, who manages Hattersley and Mottram Community Media in Tameside, east of Manchester. Muriel is one of those people fortunate to have found a role working in the community that she lives in and loves. She describes herself as well-known in the community and perceived as a bit of a troublemaker by some of the local agencies. It seems to me that this probably means she is doing a good job, as, particularly in the age of the “Big Society” community organisers who can retain the support of community members, while making life just a little uncomfortable for the “powers that be” are just what is called for. You can find out more about Muriel’s work, and that of Hattersley & Mottram Community Media here http://www.hmcm.org.uk.

Muriel Stretton

One of our topics of conversation today was how far HMCM could move its activities online and still engage with local residents. We talked about the proportion of the local population that is online, and Muriel told me that this fluctuates. The principal reason for this is households cannot get fixed line data connectivity without it being tied to a phone line. Muriel described a typical scenario of a low income household signing up for a broadband contract, but then having their line cut off because most of their contacts use mobile phones, and it can be prohibitively expensive to call a mobile from a landline phone. Muriel says this is a very common situation, and means that, although virtually all households in the area are connected to the fixed line infrastructure, very many of them are barred from using it because they have defaulted on their phone bill. This forces them to rely on expensive and unreliable 3G dongles for their data connectivity.

I think this is a “hidden” aspect of digital exclusion that is not widely appreciated. Muriel asked why telecoms companies cannot offer “data only” fixed line packages to avoid the temptation for subscribers to run up large phone bills and risk getting cut off. This seems like an eminently sensible suggestion to me, and I believe it could be an important contribution to the drive for digital inclusion.