The issue of digital inclusion in social housing reached its peak last year, when former Housing Minister Grant Shapps pledged to abolish the digital apartheid at the ‘Digital by Default’ summit. However, ten months on, half of all council and housing association tenants in England still do not have a broadband connection. Evidently, the debate needs to move away from the benefits of an online broadband connection for tenants, to whose responsibility it is to enable widespread connectivity and how they can make this happen.
First, it needs to be said that broadband connectivity will also benefit the housing providers themselves. Analyst company Analysys Mason goes so far to say that rental incomes will be at risk if housing providers do not develop a robust strategy to promote the take-up of broadband services ahead of the introduction of universal credit.
One medium-sized housing provider, with a rental income of around £50 million, estimated that it stood to lose around £5 million per year in unpaid rent as a result of the reforms. This risk could be reduced if tenants could pay their rent online using broadband access from their own homes. In fact, estimates suggest that housing providers could save up to £340 million by providing their tenants with the means to report repairs or pay rent online. We therefore believe that the onus is on the housing providers to enable the broadband connection.
Minimising costs & maximising availability
If housing providers are to take the lead, where should they start? It’s understandable that they will want to minimise their own financial and resourcing costs while maximising the availability of affordable broadband services to their tenants. By agreeing the objectives of their digital strategies, housing providers can plan accordingly to ensure that any financial outlay will enable a long-term return on investment. With that in mind, there are three main areas that housing providers should consider in order to develop a broadband strategy:
Enabling a connection – retrofitting a connection into older properties and specifying a connection in new properties;
Paying for the connection – in some cases the housing provider will cover the cost of the connection by incorporating it into the standard affordable rent package, in others they subsidise the connection;
Encouraging usage of the connection – this is particularly true with the more vulnerable tenants who may need the benefits of connectivity explained.
Enabling the connection is a first step. Given current subscriber levels, it is clear that this cannot be left to the market or to tenants. Relying on tenants to contact suppliers directly is not adequate, especially in areas of poor connectivity where a robust connection is not viable in the first place. Housing providers need to work with service providers through a formal procurement process to agree a relationship that can give residents a guaranteed and future-proofed service.
Fibre to the home
One option that many housing providers are considering is plugging fibre-optic broadband straight into the premises which will enable tenants to choose whatever broadband package suits their needs. Installation is very simple and is even easier if it is done in tandem with other works, whether upgrading an IRS, cabling work or even a standard refurbishment.
The process for fitting the building with fibre can be done quickly via a two stage process. The first stage is to plug fibre-optic cable into the existing building ducts and then take the cable up the risers to each floor and across the ceiling voids. This work can normally be done in a matter of weeks. The second stage is to fit the connection in each flat in a position the end user prefers; upwards of 10-15 installations can be done per day.
The installation costs are negligible. In addition to the benefits to tenants, fibre-to-the-premises can be hugely advantageous for building services. The housing provider can use the fibre connectivity for a host of exciting applications, such as IP-CCTV, smart metering and door-entry systems, which will help with the RoI of a fibre-to-the-premises project.
The added benefit of choosing a full fibre solution is that the connection will be future-proofed for years to come. This is in line with recent recommendations from ex-Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who outlined his vision for the UK to have the fastest broadband of any major European country by 2015, which he said would be achieved by a fibre-to-the-premises strategy, with fibre-to-the-cabinet being only a temporary measure. As such it is logical for housing providers to choose a solution that will serve both themselves and their tenants for the long haul.
Once the connection is available, the final hurdle is encouraging adoption. This will not be a problem for the majority of tenants; it is expected that tenants will gain £530 million in annual consumer savings as a result of enhancing employability with IT skills, connecting people to jobs and online shopping savings.
The main issue to address with adoption is encouraging more vulnerable tenants and digital novices to use and benefit from digital services. There are many options available to housing providers in this area, notably recruiting digital champions among tenants and developing an internal programme to recruit volunteers to support these digital champions. They can also join Race Online 2012 which has free resources via a 1,500+ partner network.
As broadband increasingly becomes the fourth utility, the digital divide that is blocking social mobility for millions of tenants must be addressed. In this digital era, connectivity is a necessity rather than a luxury. Addressing the issue needn’t be a financial or logistical nightmare. By focusing the digital strategy on a clear set of objectives, housing providers can take the lead and put in place a state-of-the-art infrastructure that even exceeds what is available in the private sector – and is future-proofed for years to come.
Dana Tobak is managing director of Hyperoptic.