As an organisation working across rural Northern Ireland, RCN is all too aware of the inequalities experienced by rural communities. We fully welcomed the introduction of the Rural Needs Act in 2016 and we saw it was a way of ensuring equality for rural citizens. For the past few years we have worked hard to ensure ‘rural proofing’ is understood and undertaken in a way that really takes account of the needs and aspirations of rural dwellers.
Rural disadvantage is largely invisible, under-reported and therefore hard to address. The result of the lockdown on people’s very existence, with livelihoods interrupted and the closure of many businesses, has brought with it a whole new set of challenges for rural regions.
In a world locked down by a pandemic, RCN has become most acutely aware of the digital divide.
The first issue of the digital divide is the affordability of equipment. As the lockdown happened we knew all too well that connectivity for many children with their schools would be through mobile phones not computers. We learned quickly that many homes have no computer technology and this seemed to have been largely ignored by Education authorities. Schools in many areas have closed and locked up without much thought given to student access to portable equipment, forcing many community groups and youth groups to access COVID-19 funding streams to buy tablets, computers and refurbish computers so children in poorer households are not left behind. Older people too have had similar experiences. Computer technology and mobile phones have become a lifeline during this period and many groups have appealed for old smart phones to be donated so families and those isolating can keep in touch.
The second issue is about connectivity. Before COVID-19 many rural areas had little or no access to broadband and whole areas were without mobile connectivity. I live in an area with a download speed of maximum 2.1 Mbps and a maximum upload speed of 1.9 Mpbs, but this varies depending on how many others in the area are logged on.
As such, working from home for me, my husband and three children is a game of rotation. We take it in turns to use the wifi for Zoom meetings and Skyping. With one child at A level and one at GCSE, coursework and class time connection is essential for them - meaning I was forced to continue to travel to the office to access internet long after it was advised not to do so. Both children have used double their monthly allowance of data to just keep in touch with friends, connect with school and clubs they are involved with. We are lucky, our family has two working parents and can afford to increase data allowances at this time.
But what of those who can’t?
Bridging the digital divide means guaranteeing access to adequate broadband; access that guarantees speeds fast enough to make working, learning and communicating from home manageable.
With so much reliance on the internet for connectivity to government support services and local responses we know that many families are losing out on both connectivity and access to support at this time.
Families disadvantaged by the digital divide are those who live far from the nearest digitally enabled box. Many families who are working from home are frustrated by the unreliable and slow access that they get from internet. Many households have no wifi connection in the home because it is too expensive and many are far removed from town centres and villages where they could use free wifi. With so much reliance on the internet for connectivity to government support services and local responses we know that many families are losing out on both connectivity and access to support at this time.
In recent weeks we have witnessed local children exhausting data allowances on one or two zoom classes when schools had timetabled in five or six for them. This means that children in some homes remain removed from any formal education and are further isolated from the help and support offered by their schools at this time. Those filling out PIP or universal Credit claims have been frustrated by a system that was lengthy to complete and used all of their data allowance quickly.
The 4G data allowances on many contracts could be unlimited for this exceptional period. People need access to vital government-led information on employment, benefits, public health messages etc. They need to be able to stay connected and informed and they need to be supported through this time.
It is easy to assume NI is digitally connected and everyone has a smart phone or computer at home. The reality is this is not the case and many homes are forced to choose between buying larger data allowances or buying electricity and food.
RCN will continue to campaign to have broadband access to be seen as an essential utility for all of Northern Ireland. It is no longer acceptable that the piecemeal roll-out of digital infrastructure and sporadic funding streams are being left largely to communities to organise.
It needs to be coordinated and invested in now.