There are many challenges involved in getting residents online. This article discusses the challenge in providing devices and internet connections to vulnerable people, and those facing financial difficulties.
Potential solutions to providing devices
Providing devices for residents is costly and unless you are able to access funding support, so most councils will have to find alternatives. Recycled devices or the leasing of items are potential solutions, but each comes with organisational challenges.
Libraries are increasingly becoming ‘hubs’ for digital usage and digital learning, within communities where people cannot afford devices or connections. This is effective for those who are able to access their library services. But it immediately removes one of the benefits of being online, which is being able to access the internet and services from home, a benefit which may be particularly important for vulnerable residents.
The burden of cost is something that cannot be borne by councils. Many will have very little funding for digital inclusion, so alternative solutions must be sought which can alleviate this.
Camden Council began an innovative crowdfunding campaign aimed to seek donations from the public.
Croydon appealed for devices to be donated which could then be recycled for residents. Croydon has also worked together with a local broadband provider to have free wifi installed into sheltered housing blocks.
While these solutions are very inventive, sadly the main burden of costs in all but the most extreme cases, is likely to fall on the residents. So the council’s main role increasingly is one of advice and support.
Understanding residents' needs
In many cases, residents may have access to a device, but may not be able to use it or understand how to connect it to the internet. Also, those that can afford it may be put off by not knowing what to buy.
Research has shown that this is where advice and support plays a vital role, for those who either lack confidence or fear the costs. Ironically these choices are often made more difficult by the residents not being online, where the best deals can be found.
Each resident will be different and have different needs. Therefore a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not an option. There are often lots of factors to consider.
Where funds are limited it is important to provide residents with the pros and cons to help them make the right choice for their budgets and their capabilities, which may result in compromise.
Size and portability
An obvious consideration is that of size and how portable a device is. Residents from the LGA pilot scheme in Croydon often had smartphones. Smartphones are multi-functional but not always the best option for those who are not using them as a mobile device.
They also have smaller screens than tablets or laptops. So for watching TV or using websites, devices with larger screens are much more suitable for this.
Another consideration is that of usability. When dealing with residents who are vulnerable, there will often be challenges connected to a physical or mental condition, such as eyesight deterioration or dexterity issues.
Small screens with small on-screen keyboards are not the best options in such cases. People who find typing problematic should be made aware of voice recognition software.
Functions and appearance of a mobile phone are often the same on a tablet, so the transition between these will be easier. Tablets with covers are now able to stand up in the same way as a laptop making them easier to place on a table. Mobile phones are becoming larger, giving a better experience for those who enjoy games or watching films, so choices should be weighed carefully.
Using a mouse, a trackpad or a touch screen
Choosing between using a mouse, a trackpad or a touch screen may also be important to the user, and some users may prefer one over the other. Providing opportunities for testing and practice is a good way that a council officer can help.
Cost is also important to consider. Which can be explored by officers who can help residents achieve value for money. This can be done by showing them options online and sale prices, as well as talking with residents about what options are available to suit their needs, and explaining technical specifications if possible.
Protection from damage or theft
Vulnerable residents may also need to be made aware of how to protect their devices from damage and theft. Also, how to keep it clean and maintained, to ensure that they can continue to enjoy using the internet into the future.
Connecting to the internet can be similarly challenging for users. It is good for an officer to explain the difference between a wifi signal and connection to the internet via a SIM card.
Different connection options
Users should be made familiar with internet connections, and how to get their device connected to the internet as soon as possible. A good understanding of this will help them to get the best deal possible. Showing users the ‘settings’ function on a device should be prioritised, to help them understand that they are able to control and check wifi.
Hubs and routers versus SIM enabled devices
It’s also important to explore connection methods with residents. They should be made aware of the potential benefits of a hub/router in the home, compared to the connection method via a SIM-enabled device.
The Croydon digital inclusion guides provide an easy to understand explanation of this.
Dongles and hotspots
If a resident already has equipment such as a tablet or laptop but no internet connection, a wifi dongle may be an affordable option.
If a resident has a phone and another device, to get full value, it may be beneficial to look at the hotspot function, using a phone with unlimited internet as a hub.
Pay as you go and contract upgrade phones
Those wishing to save money may instinctively opt for a phone with a pay as you go SIM, without considering the options available. Which could lead to them paying more than they need to, especially if they do not review their usage. Similarly people receiving an automatic upgrade on their device, may not realise that this is just an option and not a necessity.
So they may keep buying new phones, when they could continue using their existing device when the contract expires. In some cases, contracts will continue to run at the same price or lower, without needing upgrading the device.
However if a resident has chosen a phone, a monthly SIM may be a good option to find out their average usage. Users should be encouraged to look for the best deal available. It is easy for users, particularly those who are vulnerable to stay on the same deal, especially if someone else has set it up for them.
Passwords and networks
Passwords and network names can also be a source of confusion for vulnerable residents when they are using their devices.
Understanding what networks they are using, and when they are using them, is essential to their understanding of their devices and to help them budget.