For a digital inclusion programme to succeed, it’s imperative to first understand that demand is linked to supply – put simply, the priority must be the provision and availability of digital infrastructure, which will form the backbone of the programme.
Unfortunately, many housing providers don’t realise that they have the power to affect what digital infrastructure options they have and they wrongly believe that they have to accept whatever infrastructure is currently in place. For many, the existing infrastructure is woefully inadequate.
Many only have an antiquated ADSL infrastructure, which only enables a maximum of 17Mbps. In the best-case scenario, they will have fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) but this is still very limiting – because the fibre stops at the green box at the end of the street, the customers can only get a maximum of 76Mbps but in reality the majority get even less than that, as well as peak-time slowdowns, buffering and frustrating timeouts.
With poor infrastructure, a ‘digital by default’ programme is hindered before it even begins. Having a poor first online experience will inevitably make an offline tenant less likely to want to go back online. With that in mind, it’s crucial to make the underlying infrastructure fit-for-purpose and future-proofed, and then put in place strategies to encourage consistent and ongoing usage among the offline tenants.
An option that is becoming increasingly popular in the private sector is installing fibre all the way into a development, known as fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP). With FTTP, tenants finally have a reliable, hyper-fast broadband service that they can always depend on. The experience when compared against ADSL and FTTC is like night and day; it just works and the internet becomes another utility that they don’t have to worry about.
Enabling this connectivity is very simple. Installation can be done in tandem with other works, whether upgrading an IRS, cabling work or even a standard refurbishment. The fibre is connected using the building’s existing ducts and then the cable is taken to each floor and across the ceiling voids. The entire process takes just a few weeks.
Once installed, the tenants have a variety of cost-effective broadband and landline services they can choose from, including a fully symmetrical gigabit service, or a 100Mbps or 20Mbps service. Crucially, these services can be offered very flexibly, with contract-free options that also don’t require any credit checks.
Once you have the right infrastructure and a range of products that suit every tenant’s needs, there are a number of other things you can do that will enhance engagement and sustained usage among offline tenants.
First, it’s key to have a way that tenants can access the internet free of charge; for tenants that haven’t been online before, this provides an excellent ‘try before you buy’ option that can help ease them into regularly using the Internet. Two ways a free service can be enabled is via a free 2Mbps wi-fi service across an estate that will enable web browsing, and free connectivity and PC terminals in communal areas.
With availability fully addressed, the next step is supporting usage with those tenants who have never used the internet before. For them it isn’t enough to just provide a high-quality service with free options to ease the transition. Running formal training courses can help teach skills, but better option is to recruit ‘champion tenants’ who can help their neighbours.
By having someone that an offline tenant knows and trusts, they will be more inclined to ask questions. For the champion tenant, the incentive could be a year’s free service that can be aligned with supporting ten neighbours, showing them how to browse, search and use the internet. Materials could be provided to these champion tenants and the success can be easily measured by how many new tenants are going online.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a housing provider that doesn’t agree with the government’s ‘digital by default’ agenda. Internet usage has moved from a nicety to a necessity; it’s not just that having access to the internet is proven to improve social and economic welfare; without knowing how to use the internet and regularly going online, a tenant can’t access vital government services. Staying offline isn’t an option. However, with the infrastructure, service options and training in place, a housing provider can rest assured that no tenants will be left behind.
Stephen Holford is chief customer officer at Hyperoptic.