Social Broadband

The case for social broadband

Our project on Social Broadband began with discussion with a range of stakeholders, including sponsors Livv Housing, Fusion 21 and consultancy, Arcadis. Initially, Knowsley Borough Council and the Learning Foundation were also involved, helping to set out a broader scope about digital inclusion, exclusion and digital poverty. We wanted to provide the foundation from which social broadband, that is the free provision of broadband technology or a subsidised version, could be provided and we also thought that a delivery mechanism could be co-produced with a community or community groups and enable greater levels of economic and social value.

The original hypothesis centred on the way a low-income community might be disadvantaged in a digital society. Previous work had indicated that access to technology, the cost of technology and connection, and skills and competence had proven to be major barriers in overcoming digital poverty. The idea that we might be able to develop a business case to support a social broadband model that could be applied in a low-income community and that overcame the three main obstacles to ensuring digitally engaged communities was our starting point. 

Our Survey

We surveyed households in a community in Huyton, a town in Knowsley. We show in the first of our reports how the socio-economic conditions in Knowsley and specifically in the wards in which our survey community live, are all encompassing. They dominate the lives of those who live there, low income because of relatively low paid employment, low income from pensions and from benefits. Public sector service provision has been in decline from the point of austerity and this has made interventions, such as those by housing associations, all the more important. The characteristics of our survey area are similar to many other communities in the Liverpool City Region and are likely similar to many low-income neighbourhoods across the UK.

We called at over 400 homes in our Huyton community at the end of July and beginning of August 2022 with our structured questionnaire. We carried out a stratified random sample of the total households, by street and type of home, to assess the response rate and see at what point we could complete the survey. Around a third of homes were flats and the rest mainly two or three bedroom houses. We visited the homes on every week day except for Sunday’s and staggered the visits so it consisted of morning, afternoon and evening. Finally, we had visited all the homes in our community, many on more than one occasion, some three times, as we sought to capture views on internet use and digital poverty. We had 72 successful household responses and of these, 80% were connected to the internet.

The survey was consistent with other research that shows how it is specific groups who tend not to use the internet, and in our case this was generally older people.  Nevertheless, of those households who were connected, 7% of respondents were over 65 years of age. We also found that almost everyone is comfortable with connection via the smart mobile phone, over 90% used a router for household connection, while just over a third of households had a laptop for internet connection.  People connected to check out their finances, do some shopping and access general information; they also accessed commercial services such as video and music streaming regularly. Less regular, but not wholly absent, was going online to access public services, while about a fifth accessed education at least at some point during the month, although 80% had never accessed housing or council services online.

Policy making

We believe that the type of use is a better indicator of digital engagement as it can focus on the quality of experience from being online. Our research indicates that we can have high user activity alongside low socio-economic household conditions. That is, people can use the internet competently while remaining poor. Connection on its own does not have the desired impact on life chances, job opportunity or access to public services. Instead, use is focused on commercial services provided by private companies that result in added spending for households. The point being is that policy makers should reflect carefully about how and why they develop policy, as some initiatives may have the opposite effect to what they are trying to achieve.

Another aspect of policy making is how to involve users in producing policy. This is more than consultation and engaging groups who are marginalised, and those in low-income communities is very difficult. One way is to build in a space for work that would help develop social capital in a community, to tease out potential advocates and leaders of the community in a kind of community-linked approach that would have social organisations active around critical issues such as housing or health. This would take place before any digital policies could be enacted, with the main objective being to create trust and relationships that would enable co-production of digital inclusion policy.


To overcome digital poverty and create communities that are digitally inclusive an evidence-based approach is surely necessary. Evidence to date suggests that some groups remain completely excluded, whether through age or some other social characteristic, and therefore require additional intervention much of which will be non-digital. Yet the pervasive nature of technology means that more people will become familiar with using connected devices. This raises the question about quality of use and how we can enable the individual who can become digitally empowered in production, in consumption and in civic society.


Two reports have been produced by Dr Alan Southern, Principal Investigator for the Social Economy at the Heseltine Institute and Belinda Tyrrell, Heseltine Institute Research Associate.

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