Bridging the digital divide – the crucial role of the housing officer

Dan Craven, Head of Sales at Hyperoptic, discusses how it's part of the housing officer role to help improve digital skills within communities…

It is estimated that 11.3 million adults in the UK are digitally excluded and 37% of these people – some four million – live in social housing. It’s a high number and has many negative consequences for society not least because most of the best deals for utilities and shopping are now online and digitally excluded people can miss out on some £456 of online savings per year compared with more digitally savvy counterparts.

However, we can take some positives from the fact that digital division is increasingly not due to lack of connectivity. For London at least, typically 92% of London social housing tenants have a fixed broadband connection at home. Additionally, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimates that nationally 90% of the UK population has used the internet in some form in the last three months. But the issue is more about having the confidence to complete basic tasks online. For instance, only two thirds of Londoner’s feel ‘confident’ about completing application forms online. Nationally, an ONS report estimates that 8% of people in the UK (4.3 million people) are estimated to have ‘zero’ basic digital skills. It’s perhaps no surprise then that overall over three quarters (76%) of Londoners in social housing have stated they would ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ be likely to accept digital training.

Teens using iPad with housing officer

Key to improving online skills is to engage offline first

Research also clearly demonstrates that face-to-face and resident-led engagement is key when it comes to enabling successful digital inclusion programmes. Social housing residents in London focus groups all highly rated the value of housing officer, which is key as they are less likely to read leaflets (only 43%) or read local newspapers (15%) as well as check websites. The key therefore to bridging the digital divide is to work on non-digital channels first.

How to go about it? To improve digital inclusion in social housing, partnerships are key – namely those between broadband providers, local authorities and housing associations. These partnerships should be both technical and non-technical.

Broadband providers such as Hyperoptic are working ‘hand in glove’ with housing officers at over 200 organisations including developers, property management companies, social housing providers and councils to provide residents with the UK’s fastest broadband. But connectivity is only one piece of the puzzle. This why initiatives such as establishing Digital Skills Academies can help. In Southwark for instance, the council entered into an agreement with Hyperoptic to enable 100,000 homes and businesses in the borough to have access to gigabit full fibre broadband, at no cost to the taxpayer. But Hyperoptic has gone further by enabling 50 volunteer champions to be given free training and support to help develop the digital skills of other residents in the borough. These volunteers have come from the community itself and consists of library staff, residents looking to upskill, or students who will gain valuable CV enhancing skills. The volunteers attend an introductory session delivered by training specialists We are Digital and are then provided with ongoing training and support through Digital Unite’s Digital Champions Network.

This model is sustainable since once they have completed their training, the Digital Skills Champions will then share their skills in workshops they set up in the local community and encourage further Champions to become involved.

Building the network of the future

Whilst it’s true that over 9 in 10 of social housing tenants have a broadband connection, a lot of these will be basic and insufficient to appreciate the full benefits of the internet. For instance, some 60% of social housing tenants surveyed by Censuswide identified issues with streaming video such as iPlayer and YouTube, this was closely followed by 44% citing problems with streaming music and online gaming (by 39%).

Most of these issues are due to social housing tenants only having access to copper-based ADSL connections delivered over copper phone lines. As a result, there continue to be huge issues with peak-time slowdowns and distance attenuation – the further away the property is from the telephone exchange, or the higher the flat the poorer the service. Instead, Fibre-to-the-Building (FTTB) – also known as ‘full fibre’ the ‘gold standard’ of broadband is now available across 8% of the UK and the government is committed for everyone to have ‘as soon as possible’. With full fibre the customer can enjoy symmetrical gigabit broadband services at 1,000Mbps. With these speeds, HD movies can be downloaded in seconds and families can simultaneously access the Internet, without any frustrating slowdowns, buffering or timeouts.

The power is now in the hands of the housing officer to deliver this connectivity at no cost to their HA or the Government. There is a widely held myth that the largest barrier to installing lightning-fast new fibre is lack of finance. It isn’t, rather the biggest challenge is getting the necessary permissions to install fibre services. Normally this take the form of a ‘wayleave’ - the right of way granted by the landowner to give access to the property. By working with the broadband provider, the housing officer is in pole position to steer these permissions through to the mutual benefit of all – delivering not just world-class connectivity but the skills education needed to end the digital divide once and for all.