Virgin Media O2 to tackle broadband 'crisis' with free internet access for thousands


We don’t often think of the internet as a vital service, but between Netflix, FaceTime call, online work and study, it has supported many of us through the past 18 months. But for many others, mobile data or broadband is a luxury they can’t afford, with the average family’s broadband bill now £328 per year.

In fact, as many as seven million people across the UK can’t get web access at home. With life moving increasingly online, these “digitally excluded” people may struggle to take part in everyday activities, like applying for jobs, chatting with friends and family or accessing online classes.

To help tackle the problem, Virgin Media O2 has partnered with digital skills charity the Good Things Foundation to launch the first-ever National Databank. The “foodbank for data” will donate free mobile data to thousands of people living in digital poverty – meaning when a person cannot afford a secure internet connection that meets their needs, according to the charity.

Virgin is kicking off the scheme by donating 7.5 million GB of O2 mobile data worth £12.5m – enough for 319 million hours of internet use. They aim to help over 200,000 people get online by the end of 2023.

Helen Milner, who heads up the Good Things Foundation, said: “Having sufficient data in our increasingly digital society is not a nice to have, it’s an absolute essential. If you’re not online you can’t save money on products and services, help your children to participate in home-learning, and apply for jobs…

“Now is the time for us to come together to address the issue of data poverty in the UK once and for all.”

The Databank is now being trialled with a small group of organisations before being rolled out nationwide from November. A network of 5,000 community groups across the UK will distribute the free data in the form of data vouchers and SIM cards. Digital skills training will also be available to help people learn how to navigate the online world.

Lutz Schüler, Chief Executive Officer at Virgin Media O2, said: “The pandemic has escalated the UK’s data poverty crisis like never before – and with many millions of people facing digital exclusion, now is the time to come together and close the gap on digital inequality.”

Virgin Media wants other mobile networks to step up and donate, too and hopes the Databank will become a long-term solution to data poverty. Schüler added: “Our industry has done remarkable things in recent months to keep customers connected when they needed it most, but it can’t stop there… We want to build a lasting legacy from the pandemic.”

The company has a number of other schemes for people in need, including an Essential Broadband service which costs just £15 per month for people on benefits, and Help for Home Learners which sends free laptops and data to schoolchildren learning at home.

You can’t apply directly to the scheme yet, but after the pilot phase is over this autumn, you can find your nearest participating centre here: https://www.onlinecentresnetwork.org/ournetwork/find-centre#/map



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