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Posted 30 July 2021

Closing the Digital Divide in Social Housing Post Pandemic

RCN Blog

As a rural dweller I’ve had my struggles with accessing broadband at home which I have highlighted in several blogs over the years click here for more on that

We are lucky. Despite being in a rural area with a very weak broadband signal we are a household that could afford to boost our wifi connection with an additional provider (4G mobile) and to have enough devices to enable all of us to get on with life, despite being stuck at home during lockdown.

The pandemic has highlighted digital inequalities across the region and has further exacerbated existing social inequalities. A recent UK study by Citizens Online UK showed around 11 million people in the UK are digitally excluded and of those, around a third are living in social housing click here. In addition particular groups of people were identified within the social housing sector, to be least likely to be ‘online’. These were older people and people with disability.

Often it is a financial issue; many of those in social housing will be on some form of benefit – whether a pension, housing benefit, or Universal Credit. Even if they have access to a smartphone or tablet, they may struggle to access the internet because of the costs of contracts. Those in social housing in rural settings often have their digital exclusion compounded by poor, unreliable or no broadband access.

Studies have shown that digital inclusion enhances job prospects, social connectivity, access to key public information, and access to services such as healthcare. Even online shopping is shown to be about 13% cheaper than shopping in store. This has huge implications for households where budgets are restricted and consumer choice is limited due to rurality. The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) have identified five areas in which individuals who acquire basic digital skills are able to benefit (PDF, 1.73MB). As more and more services move online it is essential that people are supported to remain included.

For Housing Associations and Social Landlords the benefits of creating communities which are well resourced digitally with knowhow, affordable and reliable access cannot be overestimated. Studies have shown that where communities have access to digital support their economic prospects are improved, people are more likely to be engaged and participate in civic debates and in public life in local communities. Also studies show that people are less likely to fall into ill health due to isolation and loneliness. This bodes well for landlords who are shaping sustainable communities and working on issues of wellbeing and community cohesion.

For customer relations, studies have shown greater customer access and uptake of online interactions saves time and resources for providers, increases customer interaction and satisfaction in relation to service delivery and enables quick and effective management of issues before they become major problems thus saving both time and money for the agencies.  This again is of benefit to HAs and social landlords.

We believe that internet is now an essential utility, not a luxury, and where possible community schemes to provide free community access and affordable connections to households must be championed. Digital inclusion will only happen if we work together to help those who have limited knowhow – schemes such as Go On NI and others have really proven their worth with many people learning the basics of internet navigation. During the pandemic the loaning of wifi enabled devices by community groups, councils and schools showed that with careful planning isolation, loneliness and connectivity could provide a lifeline for those who were vulnerable. We saw groups come together to find solutions to broadband speeds and affordable systems through group provision in remote rural areas and we hope that infrastructure investments like Project Stratum, the City Growth Deals and others will help to level the playing field for rural dwellers.

As we increase reliance on broadband connectivity, it is essential that we ensure no one is left behind. RCN will continue to lobby government and work with our partners to break down the barriers to broadband connectivity and enhance digital take up in rural regions.