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Bridging the digital divide

A power company is tackling the inequality of digital exclusion exacerbated by the pandemic.

From News & press - 7 July 2021 12:00 AM

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While digital technology kept many people connected during Covid-19, those with limited or no digital skills or access to the internet can be isolated from increasingly online support networks.

Britain’s biggest electricity network operator, UK Power Networks, has continued providing telephone and COVID-19 secure face-to-face energy advice services for people struggling to pay their energy bills, particularly for those in remote areas or facing isolation.

The company estimates it has reduced digital barriers for over 8,900 customers at risk of being excluded from available fuel poverty support during Covid-19, saving them a total of £549,000 on their energy bills.

Giulia Privitera, social sustainability strategy and programme manager for UK Power Networks, said: “Despite the importance of increased online and video conferencing services during the pandemic, people who cannot access digital technology risk missing out on the essential support they need.

“We strive to bridge the digital barriers for those who struggle to pay their energy bills, enabling them to benefit from the same accessible support and advice. The financial difficulties caused by the pandemic has meant people may need help to reduce their costs more than ever.

“Tackling digital exclusion was a key challenge to address even before Covid-19. We were determined to work with our local partners to find tailored approaches for digitally excluded people that can be replicated in isolated communities, even in a post-COVID world.” 

Some people are more likely to be ‘digitally excluded’ than others including older people, people in lower income groups, those with disabilities and people living in rural areas.

Through Rural Coffee Caravan, the company continued delivering fuel poverty support in remote, rural parts of Suffolk to those with no access to online services and limited access to face-to-face services, such as Citizens Advice or council offices. The charity also supplied 500 energy-efficient slow cookers, which use as little energy as a lightbulb, helping people cook affordable hot meals.

Ann Osborn, from Rural Coffee Caravan, said: “It is essential that rural people without digital access, can obtain the same information as those that do have access. Our trained Rural Energy Officers have continued to advise people over the telephone and when possible, our MiFi-connected vehicles have been out in rural locations offering guided safer tariff switching. 

“Our slow cooker campaign was hugely successful and we intend to keep that going as having to choose between heating or eating is just unacceptable. We also see it as vital that being digitally excluded does not mean you are socially excluded.”

Among others, the company also worked through Groundwork South to set up a new telephone service to provide a fuel poverty service in Kent to rural communities and digitally excluded residents. 

Daniel Brittle, from Groundwork South, said: “The SPARK-PLUS project helps to reduce the risk of fuel poverty for individuals who are digitally excluded by supporting them to take control of their energy bills. Our experienced Green Doctors help break down barriers, guiding digitally excluded people through energy switching services and the energy market to make sure they're on the most cost-effective tariff.”

And in severely deprived communities in Rother and Eastbourne, UK Power Networks teamed up with Energise Sussex Coast to support 450 people, providing an energy advice telephone helpline and Covid-19 secure appointments.

Kate Meakin, manager of the Energise Sussex Coast service, said: “Our partnership with UK Power Networks is to ensure communities in Rother and Eastbourne could still receive the most suitable level of support through a range of accessible channels including an energy advice telephone helpline, video conferencing, or safe in-person appointments where necessary. 

“ESC’s trusted energy telephone advice line was promoted through partner referral organisations and by advertising in local and regional newspapers, the only window many digitally excluded people had into the outside world during a lockdown, helping people unable to access such services online.”