Do we need “telecoms foodbanks”?

How well does the telecoms industry service the needs of the very poor in developed countries such as the UK? How can we do better?

My experience throughout 2016 and 2017 of supporting a homeless person in the UK has been an educational one. Indeed, I have several friends who have become homeless in the last few months. I have watched them suffer from poor health, persecutory employers, house fires (two!), insane welfare rules, and rogue landlords. Each has had an impact on their ability to communicate, and with harmful consequences for their lives.

My naive assumptions have often proven incorrect. For instance, I naturally assumed that the key barrier to using telecoms would be cost. However, that seems to be less of an issue than I anticipated. The price of unlimited SMS and a reasonable bucket of data is very low. Starbucks and McDonalds have unwittingly become a social safety net for cheap communications. When you really need to talk on the phone, you can just briefly ring someone and let them call you back.

The real issues I noticed were things like:

  • keeping the device charged, especially when you run out of electricity
  • credit, or don’t have anywhere to plug it in at all;
  • things getting wet and damaged because you are forced to live out in the open air, or travel a long way on foot or cycle because you can’t afford public transport;
  • your employer sends you a work roster as a PDF attached to an email, which is nigh impossible to read on a low-end device;
  • unexpectedly running out of data and hitting usurious overage charges because you suddenly no longer have access to cheap fixed-line connectivity but your plan offers no timely upgrade;
  • having your device stolen, since the poor are disproportionately victims of crime, then having to recover your data and digital life; and,
  • dealing with admin like warranty repairs that need padded envelopes, scissors and sticky tape (that you don’t own), and an address to send the returned device to (that you don’t have).

In the case of my main homeless friend, basic barriers have been things like password management for her Google and Apple accounts, or picking the right blogging platform to communicate her story, and gaining the skills to use it well. Those at the bottom of the social heap don’t necessarily have lots of IT-literate friends around to ask for help.They may feel ashamed at their low skills in these matters, and also have damaged self-confidence that makes them too shy to ask for assistance.

I have even noticed how the iPad Pro (that around sixty newsletter readers generously clubbed together to buy her before it got stolen) assumes you already have WiFi Internet access in order to set it up. In her case, she doesn’t have broadband at her rented apartment. (Indeed, I’ve just sent her some money to stop the freezer from defrosting as the power credit has run out again, and to feed herself + dog.)

So we now have a provisioning problem that most well-off people never confront. Even the Apple assistance process for setting it up doesn’t fit her needs in terms of the support offered. The basic admin of setting a totally fixed time to talk is incompatible with her health issues; more flexibility is needed.

I have recently blagged her an old iPhone 4 from a kind donor, which will make a huge difference. But how does she get the iOS updates without blowing her whole data allowance? And how do we manage issues like a shrinking pool of apps that are compatible with a legacy version of iOS? How does she cope if it breaks and she needs to get the nano SIM out of its human-resistant tray in a hurry? How to get it back into another device with a full-size SIM tray if she needs to? How will she manage contacts when there’s no easy means of sync from her legacy feature phone?

She is presently facing eviction after the total failure of all the relevant state institutions to support her and cover her rent. I sent her this letter [PDF] via email to submit to the court, but she couldn’t sort out printer driver problems with the second-hand laptop I found her. So it never reached the judge in time for the eviction hearing.

Indeed, neither did she, having not slept or eaten for two days beforehand in absolute terror. With no money for a taxi to get her to the court, she passed out at home a few hours before the hearing and missed the whole proceedings.

I was abroad at the time, many time zones away, so was of limited help. She now owes around £2000, with zero income, and much of that amount being court charges and landlord surcharges that exists solely because she was too unwell to comply with the state’s punitive welfare procedures.

When her old phone stopped working recently, she went out to beg on the street for the money to buy the cheapest model to replace it. Eat, heat, or cell phone? Which one will you choose as your luxury today?

If you’re a battered agoraphobic with severe social anxiety, popping round to the library with a USB stick to print a letter isn’t an easy option. Whilst charity may begin at home, it may not commence at all for the homeless. Things you and I don’t think twice about become a monumental effort when you’re already battling multiple serious health problems.

This sad experience leads me to wonder how well our industry is truly serving those at the periphery of UK society, and facing economic and social exclusion. There is a lot to be proud of in telecoms, and the extraordinary success of mobile in emerging markets is one to sound a fanfare for. We’re investing billions in superfastness for the superfolk with superhomes and superjobs.

Has the success of mainstream fixed and mobile operators blinded us to the communications challenges that those in poverty in wealthy nations face? Who is being left behind, and why?

It is all too easy to ignore those less fortunate, and indeed condemn them as being blameworthy for their plight. You might also think it cannot be you, but it most certainly could, say if your mental health took a dive, you succumbed to addiction, or your family and friends disowned you.

One reader wrote to me to reflect on her experiences. Lindsey Annison is the author of the JFDI series of books on broadband, was a founding member of B4RN community fibre access team, and is a delightfully persistent thorn in the side of the telecoms establishment. She says…

Many may know me as a name in community broadband, where I have been active for the last 20+ years. Yet 25 years ago, I too was homeless and had to beg in the street. It is not a time I particularly wish to recall.

Martin’s iPad story has given me a chance to re-approach what happened to me, and how I arrived where I am today. I have followed this project closely, and the delivery of the kit at Christmas gave me a huge high.

Whilst no-one gave me a funky device, courtesy of Martin and this journey, I finally took a step in my own life and bought a laptop. The last one I owned was in 2004, and I sold it in Bolivia whilst building community broadband networks for remote communities there.

I would like to ensure one thing. When I was on the street, I experienced how stupid I was assumed to be. Dirty clothes, poverty, or looking for a fag end in the gutter: these things never ever mean ignorance. I am not, any more than a beautiful lady who received our collective gift, a moron, stupid, a criminal, or anything else that your so fast assumption might have had me down as.

Next time you see someone who is homeless, please, just consider that they may not be there because of a simple choice. Sometimes, life is rough. Tough. Harsh. And to be really honest, because it happened to me, it can be fast and mean.

Thank you for supporting Martin on this project. 

Myself and Lindsey have discussed how to ensure that homeless people can access all the communications services they need. We hope all of us can make it possible for many more homeless and disadvantaged people to have a phone, an email address, a blog, or a device.

Most of all, many just want a voice in society: to be someone who can be heard. We can offer someone a virtual home, if not a physical one, which can host guests and friendly banter. But that’s hardly compatible with Facebook’s “real name” policy, for instance, if you’ve experience domestic violence.

Do we need “telecoms foodbanks”? Should mobile operators provide “social SIMs” with special plans and support? What’s the way forward here? This is not a simple problem, since the needs of those in “communications poverty” are so diverse. Nor is it one that can be solved by just spraying money at people, since cash is often not the constraint.

If you have any insight or ideas on the unmet needs that exist, how to support these type of initiatives, or details of ongoing support programmes, then I would invite you to share them. You can write to me directly, or hit ‘reply’. I will assemble the answers into something that can be disseminated and discussed.

Tearfully yours,
PS – Yes, she needs a miracle £2k before 27th August to keep her home. I’ve spent £10k of my own money in 18 months filling in for state and institutional failure, and can’t afford any more. Can you help?
PPS – My real ambition is to raise another £10k so she can reboot her life without being at the mercy of the sociopathic Department for Worrying the Poor. That’s way beyond my current financial means. How’s your magic money tree fruiting?

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