Latest figures from the ONS suggest that 83 per cent of UK homes are connected to the internet; of the remaining 17 per cent, a disproportionate number of those are households in the social housing sector.
We know that some of those ‘unconnected’ say that they ‘simply do not need to be online’. However, a significant proportion would like to be online, but either lack the necessary skills or can’t afford it. It is these two categories that housing providers have the most opportunity to influence.
Many housing providers have been making great strides in addressing the issues of training and equipment. Rooftop has instigated and supported a number of web-based training and education events. We have also worked closely with organisations such as local libraries and voluntary groups to help increase internet usage and availability by holding workshops, open days and running online courses.
More recently, Rooftop has increased the availability of reconditioned business computers and TV internet adaptors, and provided wi-fi bubbles in our sheltered schemes to allow residents to access the internet from their own homes.
These developments follow a revamp of the Rooftop website to include features enabling residents to have direct access to enhanced online services. These features include paying rent and being able to see real-time rent statements, reporting repairs and viewing repairs status and history, and allowing residents to see the long-term planned maintenance schedule for every component of their property. The most recent addition provides residents with the opportunity to book appointments to visit key Rooftop staff such as housing officers and income officers. We have also introduced new software to the website so that visitors accessing it via a smartphone or tablet device arrive at a more user-friendly homepage.
The successful promotion of these features has resulted in around 1,800 tenants registering to have access to their online account – that’s almost 30 per cent of Rooftop’s households. Those 30 per cent are also now sent a monthly email bulletin direct to their email address featuring the latest news and information from Rooftop.
So, Rooftop has seen a huge increase in residents engaging with us via the internet. This is producing efficiencies for both parties and reflects the growing trend of internet usage among social housing tenants. Current estimates put this at around 64 per cent, up from 54 per cent in 2010. But this is still below the figure for the general UK population.
To address the remaining gap, the issue that really must be tackled is affordability. The answer could lie in a new National Discounted Broadband tariff for residents in the social housing sector. Rooftop has been working closely with Procurement for Housing with this aim in mind and we are now ready to begin a pilot project.
By working with the telecoms framework suppliers, PfH and Rooftop believe they can establish a practical and affordable National Discounted Broadband tariff for residents. The rate will be based on BT’s standard line rental and call charges, with broadband at no extra cost. This will compare very favourably with those available on the open market, effectively providing ‘free’ broadband.
The initial pilot phase of the National Discounted Broadband tariff will operate regionally. To facilitate this pilot project, Rooftop residents, through their Community Fund, have approved grants which will allow Rooftop to ‘pump prime’ this new tariff, and reduce the risk factor for the suppliers.
Alongside Rooftop, Trent & Dove Housing will also be promoting the National Discounted Broadband tariff to its residents. Rooftop and Trent & Dove are members of the Matrix Housing Partnership, a development and regeneration group which aims to achieve efficiencies in procurement, management and service delivery. The hope is to bring in the other members of Matrix – Trident, Accord, Caldmore, and Ashram housing associations – as the scheme progresses.
The framework supplier from PfH, Social Telecoms (a social enterprise organisation), will be offering the tariff to residents of both Rooftop and Trent & Dove. The agreement will be between the tenant and Social Telecoms and not with the housing provider. During the pilot stages, the scheme will be offered to residents selectively, and only those residents given a once-only code will have access to the rate. The pilot will be closely monitored and checked to ensure that it is self supporting. Once the economic viability of this rate has been confirmed, PfH would then aim to make the rate available nationally to its members’ residents.
A final consideration for Rooftop was that around 85 per cent of our 6,000 properties are in Worcestershire. Many of these properties are in rural locations and are affected by poor broadband coverage. However, high-speed fibre broadband will be rolled out to more than 90 per cent of Worcestershire homes and businesses within the next three years as a result of a multi-million pound ‘Superfast Worcestershire’ partnership between Worcestershire County Council and BT.
Ultimately, if we want to get the 64 per cent of social housing residents with internet access much nearer to 83 per cent of the general population, it is going to take a combination of improved online services, greater broadband coverage, better facilities and more training. But if we can achieve cheaper access, that will be the key to making the internet available to everyone.
Stuart Hitchman is head of information and communication technology at Rooftop Housing Group.