The internet is what made eight weeks in lockdown bearable for most of us. But for the estimated 20% of Kiwis who experience digital exclusion, not having the internet can be isolating or even deadly. 

Several days into lockdown in March on a rural marae in the North Island, a woman called Kuia has sheltered with her children and grandchildren.

Here on the marae, a community of twenty elders live closely in a collection of small flats. There is no internet and between them they have two “$10 budget cell phones” they bought several years ago for emergency calls.

“We were stuck with eight people in a little granny flat, with very small bedrooms. I gave up my bedroom for the grandchildren. I have a half garage without a door - we put a canvas across that and my daughters slept there. Myself and my partner slept on the floor.”

Information was scarce on what Covid-19 was, and what impact it was having on Aotearoa. All Kuia knew was the Government had instituted a compulsory lockdown, and so she called her whānau back to the marae to see it out. 

“You couldn’t move in that small confined space,” she says.

Kuia and her whānau were also grappling with the financial burden of the crisis. They had no income at the time, with the wage earners in the house having lost their jobs due to Covid-19. Without the internet, they were struggling to figure out if and how they qualified for the wage subsidy.

“All of these factors added to the stress of the household, and trying not to lose the plot and scream at each other. There was a state of depression, but you try to work through it - especially with the grandchildren there.”

“It was really hard… until we got the internet connection,” Kuia says. 

“As soon as we got the internet, the atmosphere changed. The kids were excited that they could go online. It opened up a whole new world for us, it really did.”

The number of New Zealanders without internet is way higher than you’d think

Even before Covid-19, ready access to the internet was lacking for a shocking number of New Zealanders, such as Kuia and her community.

The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) estimate that one in five New Zealanders experience digital exclusion. This is someone without “access to affordable and accessible digital devices and services at a time and place convenient to them, as well as the motivation, skills, and trust to use the internet.”

A 2018 report said decreasing the digital divide was crucial for handling emergencies, just like this Covid-19 pandemic. It said a lack of internet could have a “disproportionately disastrous impact on people in vulnerable or tenuous times.”

For those lucky enough to have had internet access during lockdown, just imagine what the last several months would have been like without it: no streaming, no YouTube, no video calling, no new games or movies. Most importantly, the only access to crucial Covid information would have come from government leaflets in your mailbox, news and radio broadcasts, or possibly daily newspaper deliveries.

That was the reality for one in every five New Zealanders over lockdown. The number could even be far higher - a staff member at the Department of Internal Affairs has estimated as many as one in three New Zealanders could be digitally excluded.

It varies from those who don’t have access to the necessary devices, to those who don’t have internet in their homes and so rely on public or cheap sources of internet, like at libraries. 

With libraries closed during lockdown, librarians became the first point of contact for those struggling without it. Re: spoke to one librarian, who wished to remain anonymous to protect her clients, who says her lockdown was full of phone calls with upset, and sometimes desperate people.

“Families were in tears, because they felt so isolated and disconnected,” she says.

Many saw their lack of connectivity as a symbol of poverty, and felt ashamed and embarrassed that they couldn’t afford it - especially as this lockdown had highlighted to them that it was no longer a luxury, but an essential service.

“They said to me ‘We’re poor and our kids are going to stay poor because we don’t have the internet’,” the librarian says.

For some, their lack of connection over lockdown had made their financial situation more dire. Several people had called to tell her that their kids had racked up several hundred dollar credit card bills by using mobile data for hours and hours of school Zoom meetings and entertainment. One family had accrued a data bill of $700 on their credit card and were distraught about how they would pay it, the librarian says.

A lack of internet can actually be life-threatening

What was surprising to Kuia is how the pandemic instantly made the internet a necessity for her and her community, when it never had been before. Suddenly cut off from the services they rely on - including a weekly health clinic, and a volunteer service of drivers - the internet was now key to filling these gaps.

“Here at the marae, we used to think that a $10 phone would suffice - but it just doesn’t keep you connected anymore,” Kuia says.

“All of our usual services that I would call weren’t functioning. The internet became the key to finding out who was still running, what was still happening - where to buy extra tank water from, or who could fix our overflowing septic tank.”

There were also life or death situations she and her community were unprepared for.

“Only a few days into level four, my grandson suddenly got very sick. I spent ten minutes waiting on the phone for a medic, and by the time he got to the phone I had run out of credit.” 

“I didn’t have credit now to ring the doctors, and I didn’t have access to all these normal services.”

During lockdown, there were also two heart attacks in their small community, and Kuia’s brother-in-law passed away.

Kuia reached out to a local community group about the dangers of their isolation, who quickly organised additional phones, credit, and modems to be installed on the marae.

An internet gap is an equality gap

New Zealand has been trying to deal with digital inequity for a long time. Laurence Zwimpfer has been campaigning against digital exclusion for twenty years through different organisations. He is now the operations director for the Digital Inclusion Alliance Aotearoa (DIAA), who are working to create digital equity in New Zealand by providing skills training, and partnering with other organisations such as Digital Wings to distribute refurbished devices. 

For the past three years, the Alliance has been working with the Spark Foundation on a not-for-profit programme called Skinny Jump - in which they donate modems to families with school age children who don’t have the internet. 

As well as the modem, the programme offers a prepaid service in which users can buy 30GB for five dollars - up to a maximum of 150GB a month for $25. This is nearly half the price of the cheapest deal on the market.

Laurence says this manageable cost and prepaid structure overcomes some of the biggest obstacles to many New Zealand families adopting the internet at home.  

“One of the biggest barriers for these digitally disadvantaged groups are things like credit checks, direct-debit authorities, and the fixed-monthly outgoings of $50-100. That keeps so many people away from the internet,” Laurence says.

“Offering pre-pay in smaller chunks, but still with reasonable data amounts, meets a lot of people's needs.”

Over lockdown, the DIAA worked with Spark Foundation to connect 3000 households - around the same number that they connected in all of 2019 in just eight weeks, Laurence says.

Just before lockdown was announced, the Spark Foundation opened up the criteria to also include job seekers, senior citizens, refugees, new migrants, people with disabilities and people living in social housing.

Although they were planning this change independently of the pandemic, Spark CEO Jolie Hodson says Covid-19 has highlighted just how critical connectivity is for an equitable Aotearoa.

“As more businesses, schools and services shift to digital, those without an internet connection will face increasing levels of exclusion, which compounds inequality within our community. Digital equity is something most of us take for granted, but if you can’t get online then you’re already 10 steps behind the person who can.”

The Spark Foundation and DIAA worked over the lockdown with a network of over 200 organisations - particularly public libraries and community support groups - to identify those most in need and organise services such as Skinny Jump for those who wanted them.

The future is only getting more and more online

Laurence says the Covid lockdown highlighted how internet access favours the privileged. 

“Those with these skills and access had many options - can’t pick up the groceries? I’ll switch over to home delivery.” 

The tide of digital change is not going to halt, Laurence emphasises. Proof of this is how many government agencies recently removed cheques as a payment method, and the closure of bank and post office branches. These are all moves made as digital methods become the accepted norm.

These changes were made as part of a gradual push to online service. However, almost overnight when the lockdown began, many services went from having manual options to being digital only. We need to emphasise education and digital equity now, Laurence says, so that everyone is prepared to take advantage of all of the options available - especially for moments like this, when digital becomes the only option.

For Kuia, she couldn’t be more excited about her digital journey. “For those of us who haven’t lived with these sorts of things, we’ve been absolutely amazed at what the internet provides us.”

“For the first time ever, I have just ordered a debit card. I never thought there was a need - I was the old-school person who would get my money printed out, wrap it in a hanky and take it out to town.”

Now that she has the internet in her home, she is keen to do a course to upskill herself in how to use more devices and online services. 

Over lockdown, her kids and mokopuna showed her how many possibilities the internet holds, and now she is keen to see how she can use them to improve her life, and the life of her community.

“To hear the latest news and learn new things, I used to have to wait until a hui or a tangi. But maybe I can google things? I know everyone else can google, and now I want to learn how to make it applicable to my whānau, hapu and iwi.”  

“I can still storytell to my grandchildren, but maybe with the internet I can do it in a more efficient way. Maybe by video calling them when they’re not on the marae. I want to be a part of that world.”