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.

6 thoughts on “Tackling “Hidden” Digital Exclusion

  1. I agree. I have also found many families no longer have land lines, and even if they go to the expense of having one installed the trickle of broadband they get isn’t worth the cost. If they are further than 3km from an exchange the service has degraded, and more than 300 metres from a cabinet its pretty poor too. I think Muriel has hit the nail on the head there. Is she on twitter?

  2. crikey, you must be losing your touch if you were in the same room and she slipped through your clutches. man she must be fast. 😉

  3. Obviously you can get a data-only phone line installed BUT it costs £12 a month for the pleasure! And that’s on top of your broadband bill so prohibitive based on cost.

    Are dongles really that bad? Won’t they get better as the mobile networks upgrade? Mine is pretty good and only costs me £15 a month on a contract.

  4. Even more than the last government, the Coaliton is obsessed with offering people fixed line broadband solutions – particulalry fibre. But this blog quite rightly points out that fixed lines aren’t the answer for every household. Wireless broadband, which will become a hugely better consumer proposition when 4G (3G on steroids) starts being deployed from 2012 onwards, must have a key role to play in service provision. Plus, for all but the most densely populated areas, 4G will be cheaper to deploy per home than fibre. Unfortunately, as the Coalition decided to remove the coverage obligations from the 4G spectrum licences (1G, 2G and 3G licences all had coverage obligations), not everyone who has 3G coverage now and would like 4G may get it. Thank you, Ed Vaizey.

  5. Yes Helen dongles ARE that bad! Coverage is patchy and unpredictable on a day to day basis. Many people in the areas I work in (Cambridgeshire) seem to get borderline connection, and most get a connection that is no good for anything other than the most basic browsing. The network with the best coverage also has the worst customer service, so I would be hesitant in recommending them on anything other than a PAYG basis, which is more expensive! An entry level dongle tariff allows very little other than basis surfing if you wish to use it on a regular basis (nornmally 1GB). 3G is around £15 month, which is almost the same price as some people can get a fixed line rental and broadband with a significantly higher bandwidth for. Dongles are a poor second cousin at best really, though still better than nothing.

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