Framework sections highlighted: Action

The Impact of Building an Alliance – #OperationWIFI the beginning of the end for data poverty

In March 2020, just before the country went into lockdown, stories started to emerge across our network around the issue of internet connectivity and the affordability of this. As the country locked down and moved towards online activities, those on the lowest incomes in Hartlepool, Stockport and Birkenhead found themselves locked out without access to mobile data and/or fixed broadband.

The challenge of getting online was increased further due to the closure of public spaces, where many would gather to access free WiFi services.

To raise the profile of this issue, Community Organisers launched the #OperationWiFi campaign alongside national partners including Keyring, Camarados and the Local Area Coordination network.

The campaign rapidly built an alliance of people and organisations around a common aim; to create the largest open free wireless network for low-income communities. Within days of launching the campaign it had reached 50,000 people and started to shift the narrative from Internet connectivity being a luxury, towards it being recognised as an essential utility.

One of the Founding local Alliance members, The Wharton Trust in Hartlepool, could see how valuable the internet was to keep people safe, informed, and connected during the pandemic. However, most people they worked with relied on mobile data services, predominantly on a pay as you go basis, which was expensive in contrast to standard monthly tariffs meaning that they found themselves disconnected from the wider world.

“Mobile and/or fixed broadband is a “core utility” and £30 worth of data or £30 worth of food; is not a choice that should have to be made.”

The picture was equally stark in Stockport, where Nicola Dean of Starting Point Community Learning Partnerships started to see signs going up in the windows with people begging for help because they couldn’t go online to find out where food banks were, call the GP or get their medication.

“I could see that there was a clear link between digital exclusion and poverty.”

This was a national issue, but local people couldn’t wait for central Government action. Across the Community Organisers network there were localised responses with High Trees Community Development Trust launching a Crowdfunder and distributing laptops to people of all ages who needed them and Starting Point lobbying their local Council to support the concept of a lending library for both data and devices. But more was needed.

Community Organisers hosted an online conversation in partnership with Local Trust and Toynbee Hall where over 100 people and organisations came together to ‘crowdsource’ ideas to fix the digital divide. This led to the alliance evolving significantly with over 100 national and local civil society organisations joining from across the public, private and voluntary sector and supporting the ask for a National Databank.

This ask, drew on learning from other parts of the globe, where people gifted their unused data to a National Databank with the unused mobile phone data being distributed to those who needed it.

To build support for this National Databank a social media campaign was run asking people to pledge to donate their data, if there was the opportunity to do so, as part of the “random acts of kindness” Twitter campaign .

Picking up on the campaign O2 Virgin Media  reached out and committed to exploring a National Databank. As a result, Vodafone and Three also committed to work in partnership with them to provide 500,000 people, who couldn’t afford to get online, with free mobile internet data.

This National Databank is now being administered by the Good Things Foundation who are also calling on the rest of the UK’s mobile networks to join the National Databank.

“This campaign shows the true power of people: listening to people across our network not only gave them a voice to highlight this issue, but collectively we were able to come together to take action nationally and change things for the good”