UK mobile operators urged to remove data costs for online learning

Home schooling
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There are calls for UK broadband and mobile operators to ‘zero-rate’ education applications and websites as part of a wide-ranging package of measures to support remote learning.

A third national lockdown means most primary and secondary school pupils will be required to stay at home for the next six weeks and will be reliant on digital learning tools for that period.

However, there are concerns that some students lack the devices and connectivity requires to access these resources. Some disadvantaged households do not have a dedicated broadband connection or laptop and access the Internet via pay-as-you-go mobile phones.

Digital learning access

Video collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom can be very data intensive, meaning data allowances or prepaid credit could be consumed rapidly, while other applications require the use of a PC.

The Department for Education says it has made 560,000 laptops available to students since the start of the pandemic and will allocate 100,000 more. While this has been welcomed by teachers and campaigners, some have complained of shortages or problems with distribution.

Others have noted that the provision of connectivity is just as important, including the Children’s Commissioner for England and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

“We're asking people to endure very tough restrictions. And there has to be the other side of that contract,” he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

“Everybody needs to try and make this work. And that includes the companies that can take away the charging for data. It's a serious situation.”

During the first lockdown it was estimated that 700,000 children were unable to complete schoolwork.

One solution could be to ‘zero-rate’ education applications and services, meaning they would not count towards any data allowance. Many mobile operators have already applied such policies towards health resources during the pandemic, while BT is among those to remove any caps on fixed broadband use.

However, this would not be of any benefit to anyone without an Internet connection to begin with.

The government has also secured the support of several mobile operators to temporarily increase mobile data allowances for disadvantaged children, with Mi-Fi routers also available. Today, Three has confirmed that it is participating in the 'Get Help with Technology programme' with unlimited data applied until the end of the school year.

BT, which owns EE, has also joined the DFE’s programme, offering 20GB of mobile data a month until July believing this to be a better short term solution than zero rating, while it is also offering free BT Wi-Fi vouchers and a basic £10 a month fixed broadband package to eligible families. Vodafone also plans to get involved but until then is offering free data SIMs to the most in need.

Separately, Virgin Media has launched an affordable service for anyone on universal credit.

Earlier this year a cross-party group of MPs, former politicians such as Tony Blair, and education experts had called for the government to provide broadband connections and devices to the 1.3 million children eligible for free school meals.


Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.