As teachers and pupils alike take onboard the spectacular volte-face by the UK government to transition from declaring schools safe to a Covid risk in a matter of hours, the authorities have responded to concerns that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds will lose out as lessons move to exclusively online remote learning for the foreseeable future.
Mass availability to high-quality broadband connections and good mobile connectivity were already hugely contentious issues in the UK well before the pandemic hit and the first lockdown was declared in March 2020.
Research from UK comms regulator Ofcom in December 2020 noted that while the UK’s domestic networks coped well with the added strain of mass home working and fibre roll-out gathered pace, a small but significant number of properties were still struggling to get connected. Ofcom estimated that 43,000 premises could not access either a decent fixed broadband service or good 4G coverage indoors. And with millions more Britons yet again having to work from home if they can, the importance of getting fast, reliable broadband to as many people as possible has never been clearer, and the fears of a digital divide still abound.
Ofcom’s figures revealed that 11 million households able to get a superfast connection are still struggling on speeds of 12Mbps or less and that around 190,000 homes and businesses (0.6%) are still without access to what is regarded as a decent broadband connection. Such properties may be eligible for a connection under the universal service, with no costs to the customer unless these exceed £3,400 and Ofcom expected around 16,000 properties could receive a universal service connection, without additional costs needing to be met by the customer. Moreover, where reliable fixed broadband is too costly or just not available, disadvantaged families are typically using mobile data allowances to get connected to online services.
The UK government’s “Get help with technology” programme involves increasing data allowances on mobile devices to support disadvantaged children. It is designed to expand temporarily allowances for mobile phone users on certain networks so that children and young people can access remote education if their face-to-face education is disrupted.
Schools, trusts and local authorities can request mobile data increases for children and young people who either do not have fixed broadband at home, cannot afford additional data for their devices, or are experiencing disruption to their face-to-face education.
Schools, trusts and local authorities can request mobile data increases when schools report a closure or have pupils self-isolating. They can also make requests for children who cannot attend school face-to-face because they’re clinically extremely vulnerable or restrictions prevent them from going to school. Children with access to a mobile phone might be able to benefit if they are on networks from Three, Smarty, Virgin Mobile, EE, Tesco Mobile and Sky Mobile.
Commenting on its participation in the scheme, Three UK said it would provide unlimited data upgrades to disadvantaged school children in England to ensure they are able to continue with their studies, as many schools across the country move to remote learning. The unlimited data will be applied until the end of the school year in July.
“Education is crucial for everyone in society and it is vital no child misses out. Three UK wants to support those families that need access to connectivity to support their child’s learning needs during the pandemic,” commented Three UK chief commercial officer Elaine Carey. “The move is the latest in a range of support that Three UK has provided to customers during the pandemic, including zero-rating calls to NHS 111, NHS websites and video consultations, and free unlimited data upgrades for NHS frontline staff.
At the end of 2020, Vodafone reported that it also still had free data SIMs available to help disadvantaged children with their education. The SIMs programme was initiated in 2020, and by November had reached 250,000 free connections in less than a week. As part of the programme, the operator announced that it was offering free data to 100,000 extra students, including colleges.
The call for free mobile charges was made by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, which demanded that the government waive data charges on education websites during lockdown. It said educational websites should be exempt from mobile data charges to help the poorest families, citing in particular key sites used by schools and parents, for example, Purple Mash and Classcharts, which it said should not incur any mobile charges in the latest national lockdown.
The BCS noted that while broadband data caps have been removed following negotiation by the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and major providers, many families’ internet connections still come via capped mobile services.
“Many low-income families rely on mobile data for internet access, and the average data allowance is much lower,” pointed out Adam Leon Smith, BCS chair of the Chartered Institute for IT’s software testing group. “With schools being closed for the foreseeable future, the DCMS should negotiate a ‘zero-rating’ for educational websites with mobile data providers.”