Barriers to access: financial
When we asked people what got in the way of accessing the Internet, the first answer from almost every group was cost. Often the issue of cost was expressed explicitly in terms of the general financial hardship that some of our participants or others in their communities were experiencing.
“We have a higher poverty rate here, so a lot of people are either unemployed and can’t afford it or simply can’t afford to pay for Internet devices, obviously they (prioritise) food and power.” – Kawerau Wananga
“If it came between the bills and the wifi, it would have to be the bills.” – Kawerau teen parents
“Some families struggle to pay for food and bills - this [the Internet] would be the last one on their agenda.” – Westport youth Group
When they talked about the cost of getting online participants talked not only about the cost of monthly Internet connection, but also the cost of having and maintaining a suitable device. They talked about the start up costs of getting connected - especially to fibre where that was available - and how that might need to be repeated if they had to move houses.
The cost, in terms of time and money, of moving a connection was a theme that came up in many group discussions and interviews. Participants told us that people who are on low incomes in New Zealand are more likely to have to move house more often, and that this means they are disproportionately penalised by any costs related to moving or getting new connections. For people who are homeless, including young people who have no home of their own but move between the homes of friends and family, the barriers to digital connection are even greater.
Youth with chronic illness, who can use regular devices, also had major issues with cost. As one young woman with chronic fatigue syndrome explained “the energy I have means that if something is put out of my reach by money…I will just do without.” This can lead to further social isolation.
Some participants talked about the additional costs of getting out of a contract if they needed to get a better monthly price, or the challenges of getting a new contract at all if they had been forced into any kind of insolvency proceeding. One example was a woman who had been on a high data contract during a time of her life when she was in a well-paid job. Then she was faced with the parallel challenges of getting cancer and having to leave a violent relationship. During this period of her life she could no longer afford the more expensive plan.
“I wanted to change to a cheaper plan, so I have to pay that waiver fee. I try to tell them I can’t afford the $100 a month plan any more, so how do you think I’m going to afford the waiver fee?” – Women’s refuge group, Auckland
The maze of financial barriers
One of the women with experience of family violence said the way telecommunications companies structured their contracts, combined with the requirement from WINZ and other government agencies that clients be online and regularly checking their messages, created a kind of maze or trap that kept women like her in a state of constant disadvantage.
For example, a woman could start out on a wifi contract that she could afford, but which became too expensive when her situation suddenly changed, for example by leaving a violent relationship. She might then be charged penalties for defaulting on payments, or face a default fee for leaving her contract too soon. Or as a result of a stack of financial difficulties in every area of her life, she might be advised to declare insolvency and enter a No Asset Procedure (NAP) where no new contracts could be entered into for a year. This would mean she couldn’t get a new Internet contract with another provider, so she could find herself stuck having to choose between staying on a contract she could no longer afford, or going without wifi.
Meanwhile, a lack of access to wifi could place her at the risk of losing income support or other MSD entitlements as a result of being unable to check her emails to see that she was due to report to an appointment at WINZ. She also might not be able to top up her power account, if it require an online payment. To get online she would have to walk up the road to a wifi hotspot, which would involve waking up the baby, or taking the toddler out late at night.
In short, a raft of different factors came together to make these women feel, as they put it, as though they were caught in a maze that had many more dead-ends than exit points. The women in the group agreed that digital exclusion operated in specifically discriminatory ways against women in their circumstances, although some thought it was more careless than deliberate.
“They’re not actually thinking about ‘Who am I disadvantaging?” – Women’s refuge group, Auckland
Whether the ‘trap’ was deliberate or not, these women proposed that it needed to be changed.
Disproportionate harm on most vulnerable
Participants recognised that it cost money to provide Internet access, but they also struggled to understand how people on low incomes, and especially those going through times of crisis or transition, could afford to stay connected. They also pointed out that losing the ability to be connected could have a disproportionately disastrous impact on people in those vulnerable or tenuous times.
“Your benefit can be cut off because you missed an appointment because you didn’t have access to the Internet… because they emailed you.” – Women’s refuge)
“We have some strict guidelines that we have to contact [the young people receiving the Youth Payment], and if we can’t contact them then their benefits get cut.” – Youth worker, Westport
Overall, cost was the barrier to digital access raised most consistently in all group discussions and interviews. This was often framed in the context of wider issues like unemployment, low incomes, poverty and inequality, rather than simply as a problem of high costs.