Making a necessity accessible: How a new scheme is bringing broadband to those in need

The UN has declared internet access a basic human right, but at-home internet remains out of reach for many struggling New Zealand families. Madeleine Chapman learns how the Spark Jump programme is attempting to bridge the digital divide.

For most of last year, a Belmont family took regular visits to their nearest McDonalds. Not for a delicious dinner or all-day breakfast, but to send important emails and check TradeMe listings. Free wifi in public places is always a pleasant surprise, but for Victoriano and his family, it became a resource to depend on. With no internet at home and four school-aged children, the 500mb available on Victoriano’s prepaid phone plan each month simply wasn’t sufficient.

It’s so easy to take certain things for granted when you’ve never lived without them. Food, shelter, clothes, and now the internet. Like smartphones, having access to the internet is no longer a novelty that only those not saving for a house deposit should have, they’re necessities. Having the ability to communicate, learn, and share with the world is now a vital component of existing in a first world society.

But that doesn’t mean everybody has access to the world wide web. At the last census, just over 60,000 homes with school-aged children had no internet access. Granted, the last census was in 2013 and that number is expected to have dropped somewhat, but that’s a lot of children without access to sites as simple as Google and Wikipedia when doing their homework.

The internet isn’t going away and the longer a family goes without access to the rest of the world, the higher the chance of alienation and missed opportunities, both socially and financially. It’s known as the ‘digital divide’, the disadvantages faced by low income families without internet access.

The Spark Foundation, in an attempt to offer a leg up to those not even on the internet ladder, last year launched Spark Jump, a programme offering cheap, pre-paid broadband to young families without an internet connection. Partnering with school networks and trusts around New Zealand such as the 20/20 Trust – working to provide digital learning and hardware to communities in need – Spark Jump aims to provide a necessary connection to enhance children’s learning away from the school.

Stephen Carr, executive director of the 20/20 Trust, knows that learning doesn’t just happen in schools – learning resources at home are just as important. “All schools are funded by government to be able to provide computer technology,” he explains over the phone from Wellington, “but with the evolution of cloud computing and the ability to collaborate in a variety of different ways, that’s something that goes beyond the school computer lab.” Beyond the computer lab and into the home where, for many families, the collaboration stops due to no internet.

At $15 for 30gb of data a month, the Spark Jump programme is the smallest and cheapest on the market, and yet it’s not exactly on the market. You won’t see billboards or ads on TV about it because it’s not available to everyone. Spark works with their community partners to identify families in need who might benefit from the programme. Most of these matches happen through primary schools in low socio-economic areas. Families are free to approach their school or community to request it, but Carr says that rarely happens. “The types of families that we work with are nervous because they’ve never had the internet before. They don’t know what it is they’re not getting.”

One of the few who has sought out the programme is Victoriano, from Belmont. After seeing an announcement of the launch in the papers, Victoriano called Spark, who then referred him to their Auckland partner and set him up with one of the first Spark Jump modems in the country.

The Takapuna-adjacent suburb of Belmont doesn’t exactly conjure up images of deprivation and low-income families. But after being made redundant from his job last year and being the sole earner working in seasonal employment, Victoriano, with his wife and four school-aged children, quite comfortably (or uncomfortably) qualifies for Spark Jump.

Victoriano’s wife, a qualified teacher, homeschools their four children in the living room of their three bedroom home. Instead of a television, the walls are filled with artwork, much like a standard classroom. Toys and learning materials crowd the space between the living room and the kitchen in a way that is both hard to ignore and yet entirely expected for a family of six living in a small three bedroom home.

With most of the home-schooling curriculum shifting online this year, Victoriano was desperate to find a wifi plan they could afford, and Spark Jump’s $15 a month narrowly fit into their budget. But besides being able to avoid the McDonalds carpark, not much has changed for Victoriano. “30gb a month is enough for education but we don’t use it for entertainment. Our kids don’t play online, they just use it for what they’re meant to use it for; their studies.”

Stephen Carr agrees. “You’re really going to chew through your data if you’re using it for Netflix. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about collaborating with the schools and identifying the families and making sure that they understand 30gb is quite a lot but also not that much. It’s more than adequate for the educational needs of a child or children at home, but don’t get carried away.”

However, if a family does go through their data quicker than expected, they can top up their account another $15 to receive another 30gb. In the same way, if there’s no room in the budget to pay the bill, there are no penalties because it’s prepay and if you don’t top it up or use it, nothing happens.

“A lot of families struggle with the concept of a contract because they fear committing themselves to something that’s going to turn around and bite them,” says Carr, when asked why he thinks Spark chose a prepay system for their Jump programme. “By offering the prepay option (all you have to do is go to the dairy and get a voucher), they’re not expecting these families to suddenly move into a world with a credit card and bill payments.”

It sounds simple enough, and very much worth it for your child’s education, but there haven’t been as many signups as they’d hoped. Carr knows this is because there are still misconceptions about just how much information is available online. “To many individuals, the internet really is just Snapchat and Facebook, so they don’t know why their child would benefit from it.”

There’s also the stigma of accepting what some might perceive to be a handout. Having worked in low income communities for many years, Carr isn’t so surprised at the lack of families lining up. “Most parents want to do the best for their kids and when they realise that they don’t have the ability to do everything they wished they could do, then there’s some regret in that.”

It’s a natural human reaction to an offer of help. That voice that says ‘what makes you think I need help?’ So for Carr, it’s not at all a product to sell, but an opportunity to educate young families on the huge benefits of online access. “It’s about working together to make sure that families understand the benefit to the child’s education and how giving them [internet] access to support their education at home can really lift their academic achievement. And having lifted that, can increase their employability and financial well-being.”

As the world steadily moves online, access to the web increases in its importance, especially to young people and their learning. Spark Jump won’t cure all societal ills or magically raise the academic levels in low income areas overnight, but it’s a start.

Spark Foundation is the charitable organisation for Spark New Zealand, supporting causes that New Zealanders and Spark people feel passionate about. The foundation is also the proud owner of Givealittle, New Zealand’s most popular crowdfunding website. For more information on Spark Jump visit sparkfoundation.org.nz/sparkjump.  

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