Spark plugs digital divide with low-cost fixed wireless

At least 5000 struggling families will get subsidised broadband from Spark New Zealand.

The families will each get 30GB of data a month for $15 on a pre-paid, no fixed-term Spark Jump contract. The price also includes a modem.

Spark will use Skinny Broadband. The company’s no-frills subsidiary offers wireless broadband using the 4G mobile network.

Risk of digital exclusion

The company says it won’t pick which families get the subsidised broadband service. Community groups and government agencies will identify families at risk of digital exclusion.

Simon Moutter, Spark’s managing director, says: “We believe New Zealand children deserve to have the opportunity to learn and thrive in the modern digital economy. Spark Jump is our way of helping solve this digital divide, by ensuring children have digital access both at school and in the home.

He says Spark wants to use technology to unleash the potential in all New Zealanders.

Families in Christchurch and Auckland have taken part in a successful pilot in recent months.

Spark’s registered charity, the Spark Foundation will partner with local community-based organisations. These groups will identify eligible families.

Manaiakalani Education Trust

Spark Foundation chair Nick Leggett says the project developed from a four-year partnership with the Manaiakalani Education Trust.

He says: “Our work with Manaiakalani has shown that the lack of home broadband is a barrier to New Zealand children’s learning and that whanau engagement plays a big role in children’s educational success.

“By enabling whanau to support digital learning with home broadband, we can help build on the effectiveness of the government’s efforts to improve broadband access within schools, through the rollouts of ultrafast fibre and the Network for Learning (N4L) managed network.”

Spark says the aim to provide services for at least 5,000 families in the next year. It plans to work with government agencies to extend the project’s reach.

New Zealand’s digital divide

While Spark’s contribution is welcome, it highlights the problem getting broadband to poorer New Zealanders. It’s great news for the 5,000 or so Spark Jump families.

Yet by some estimates, that is one tenth of the number of poorer New Zealanders who don’t have broadband. The 2013 NZ Census reports there were 62,000 households with school-aged children which said they did not have home broadband or which did not specify whether they had broadband.  

Broadband exclusion a problem for schools and teachers dealing with students from poorer homes. Computers and other digital tools are now commonplace in the classroom. Most schools have fast fibre broadband. Students are often asked to work on digital projects. That’s fine during the school day. But while better-off children can go home and continue their work, poorer students don’t have the opportunity.

This story was first posted at billbennett.co.nz

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