Communications poverty the UK

Whilst telecoms policy is focused on developing advanced technologies like 5G and fibre, more basic and important welfare issues are being neglected.

“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life.”
— John F. Kennedy

As many of you know, I have for the last 2½ years supported a friend in dire need. I initially met her begging on the street, and resolved to make a difference. It has been a difficult undertaking, one of the hardest I have ever encountered in my life. Indeed, it has been truly eye-opening to experience the world through her. Since the focus of this newsletter is telecoms and tech, I have asked her to share with me some of her exposure to communications poverty.

As context, it is helpful to know that she is afflicted by both mental health problems (having led a traumatic life), as well as physical impairment (including life-saving spinal surgery last year, leaving her in constant pain and with restricted mobility). She lives in deep hardship on the periphery of an otherwise genteel English town, with only her mother and myself for support. Her sole source of income, beyond what I and readers here donate, is from the Universal Credit welfare benefit.

She begins: “I have been experiencing issues related to communications poverty for many years now, and it is still a shockingly big and widespread problem. This is especially so when someone is attempting to stay positive, strong and move forward and upwards in their life.”

I asked her to give me a sense of what communications poverty means to her. She related her most recent experience, when the second-hand smartphone she had (donated by a friend of mine) broke. As it was also her Wi-Fi hotspot, she was knocked offline for a few weeks, until a generous industry colleague bought her another one.

“That is when it really hit me, when I haven’t been able to use the Internet at all. It was so frustrating. It is all good and well people saying – like they did at the mobile phone store – “why can’t you go to the library?”. But my local library is down to 4 hours of opening per week. You also need photo ID, which I don’t have, to use their services. I cannot afford public transport to travel into the town centre to use other library facilities, or even attend the Job Centre Plus.”

She goes on to emphasise the systemic way in which today’s communications products and services don’t meet her needs. “As an example, the need for formal identity is a part of communications poverty, as the world is security mad. I can’t get a library card, so can’t use their facilities, and don’t have a bank account. You might say that I should just get a passport or other ID to fix this, but where we will I get the money for a passport when I can’t even save £5 a month? The result is that I was totally isolated without an Internet-enabled phone.”

We dug a little deeper, to understand what it is like surviving long term on state welfare benefits. She highlights how the commercial terms of the standard products simply don’t fit her reality at all: “Broadband comes with contracts and fixed monthly direct debits. Obviously, when you are on such a low income and have no money—and no bank account—that’s a big barrier. A £20 connection fee is £4 a week for a month, and you just haven’t got it to spare. But the biggest issue is the way Universal Credit (UC) works. Debts like old bills, fines, and council tax can hit your account first before you get any payout.”

This potentially leads to a more serious failure: “Because you are always living in arrears, when you get paid monthly with UC it is all gone in a week. You buy a bit of food to last the remaining three weeks, but it doesn’t ever last that long. I pay my rent directly from my UC payment, but if any kind of debt comes in, then I am homeless. You simply cannot afford to go into debt with a broadband contract, and it’s not affordable even at just £20/month.”

“This is before you consider any other expenses in life. For instance, I have a hospital scan tomorrow as I am in pain. But I am not formally deemed as disabled, so I cannot claim travel costs back. That means out of the minimal £40 per week I have to live off, I am going to have to get 4 buses at a cost of £25. So you can forget about buying broadband.”

For her, the risk of taking on a fixed or mobile broadband contract is not just that you cannot pay it, and are blacklisted for bad credit, but that it leaves you short of food to eat, or indeed become totally homeless. Pay as you go mobile helps, but often has punitive rates if you are short of credit, and leaves you totally disconnected when you run out of money.

Having seen the catastrophic impact of street life on her health, I don’t think signing up for contract broadband would be high up my list of priorities, either. But here’s the kicker: you often have little choice, and this is where the really crazy bit begins. As a society we have put all welfare and health services online, but without considering how users will actually reach them.

“When I lost my Internet access recently, I couldn’t contact Universal Credit online at all. I stopped filling in my Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) journal [for proof of seeking work] for 2-3 weeks. They would send me a text message saying you need to go to your online UC account, as there is a message for you. But they won’t just pick up the phone. It’s absolute madness, as you can end up being sanctioned and lose benefits income for up to 3 years as a result.”

People typically suggest naive solutions, without understanding her situation: “It is easy for the authorities—usually drawn from middle and upper classes who have zero life experiences of the matter at hand—to simply assume that you should just go out and use a payphone instead when your mobile breaks. But apart from the high cost, as services are not freephone numbers, I have limited physical ability – so it’s not an option any more. Yes, it is an answer – but just not for me.”

“They assume you can get to the library, but I myself suffer from crippling anxiety and panic disorders. I have very little income to actually get to the public facilities in the town centre. Even when you arrive, there is no guarantee a computer is free, as there is a growing amount of demand for those facilities.”

There seems to be little or no care or compassion in our welfare system: “In this recent case when I went offline, nobody reached out to call me to see if anything was wrong. It was totally quiet. It is as if phones and Royal Mail don’t exist any more. It is so frustrating, as I don’t have a single piece of paper with my benefit details.”

“If it wasn’t for you and other people who have helped, then I wouldn’t have laptop or phone either. I would feel like an alien! You stick out like a sore thumb, not part of normal social reality. When you admit you are not online you feel like a stupid country bumpkin who can’t use a computer. But you are not some kind of weirdo; you simply cannot afford it.”

She goes on to describe the impact this has: “I am quite mentally alert, but you can only imagine what it is like for someone older or less able than I am. Even for me, I got so ill for 13 months that I just gave up trying, it was too much. This recent period of being offline hurt my mental health, leading to even more anxiety and panic.”

“You get a single missed call from the DWP and try calling them back. The system then thanks you for calling back, but you can’t speak to anyone right now. It makes you ill from worry. Even doctor appointments and application forms for charity help are all done online. If you can’t access these other services, as with the local library, then you can lose benefits and become literally homeless. The human impact of communications poverty is massive.”

This really came home to me when a kind industry associate agreed to buy her broadband service. We had to send her some emergency money at the last moment, as her prepaid electricity was about to run out when the installer was due. Then she missed the installer anyway, because she had to attend an emergency medical appointment, as she was in such pain. Whilst the utility suppliers have a concept of a vulnerable customer, their processes simply aren’t fit for purpose.

So, what to do? She highlights some very basic issues that need to be addressed by government policy makers:

  1. Making benefit claims online. This is the single most major and frustrating point that needs addressing, she says. Those in hardship must have the means to engage with the process.
  2. Applying for a new home, or to move to a more suitable home. Council tenants have to go online daily to bid for chance to be housed, and attempt to move into a different property. You need broadband and a computer for this.
  3. Job searches and applications. When DWP put you onto UC (or similar benefits), part of the agreement is to be looking for employment and other forms of earning money. This also needs suitable access.

My friend asks if “left over” gigabytes from broadband packages could be put into a system to donate them to poor people who cannot afford it. It’s one idea, and might have some impact, but I see the matter as requiring more profound industry and government action.

It seems to me that what’s really missing are a set of essential social broadband services and devices that those in serious need can access. This may require Ofcom to negotiate special regulation and pricing terms with industry suppliers for non-market products that service these vital social needs.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know for certain that not many people are asking the right questions at present.


Would you help her to help others?

When I first met her on the street, the main reason I stepped up and acted was because she was determined to become a social activist. It wasn’t merely personal charity, but a mutual commitment to achieve something together. I never guessed how many challenges and barriers we would face! There’s quite a book to be written from our thousands of text messages.

We’ve made a lot of progress in that time, and I would now like to take this to the next level. I’d like to get her actively involved in raising this communications poverty issue, and bring her to London to meet some of the relevant people. I can help to document these meetings, and bring wider awareness to what happens. This means transcending her present situation of basic survival.

She shouldn’t be worrying about £25 to get to hospital tomorrow, and the consequences of her post-surgery incontinence on that journey. One colleague gives her £50 a month, and it makes an enormous difference. Another has got her onto postpaid electricity, and covers her bill, so she doesn’t find herself in a cold and dark apartment a 3am again with a defrosted fridge and freezer. Another is ready to sort out her own broadband needs. Another has given her a PC.

What would make the biggest help is a few more people sponsoring her to turn her life around by making a recurring monthly gift to her. She is often short of food and other essentials, so this would give her a safe platform from which to begin to reengage productively with the world. She’s not well enough to do normal paid work yet, but she is capable of taking this social activist task on.

If you would like to sponsor her recovery and communications poverty activism, then hit “reply” and I can give you details of how. Alternatively, if you’d like to make a one-off donation, send it to paypal.me/martingeddes and I will forward it on. Together we have the power to make it happen and make a difference!

She ought to have the last word: “I always desperately want people to understand that I’m not a lazy biatch who wants a free ride, or who has never had a job or passion or desires to better myself. Nowadays the powers that be happily attach labels to the folks they deem to be worthless, so voters can’t trust in those of us who are totally genuine.”

“I would give anything to work doing something with potential of a future career and a more stable, calmer and productive lifestyle that benefits myself as well as my community. I truly hope readers will forward this brilliant and straight-talking article, and have open minds and  don’t judge or stigmatise benefits claimants. Each and every one of us is someone’s child, or someone’s relative or friend, and I believe that there is some kind of decency in everyone!”

 

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