O2 joins Government free mobile data scheme for schoolchildren in lockdown

O2 has joined the Government’s scheme to provide free mobile data to disadvantaged schoolchildren during lockdown, as other firms have increased the allowance they offer.

The company said it would offer 40GB of free data a month to pupils as part of the scheme, double the 20GB that the scheme launched with.

The Department for Education (DfE) Get Help with Tech scheme is already being supported by EE, Vodafone, Three, Sky Mobile, Smarty, Tesco Mobile and Virgin Mobile – with Three and Smarty both confirming they are now offering unlimited data to students.

The measures from network operators come following renewed calls for technology firms to do more to help pupils forced to study at home because of new lockdown restrictions, but unable to afford or access an adequate internet connection.

O2 chief executive Mark Evans said: “Tighter lockdown restrictions risk leaving the most vulnerable disconnected once again, so I am proud that O2 is supporting children of home schooling families through the DfE’s Get Help with Technology scheme.

“Connecting the most vulnerable, and digitally disconnected, is something we’ve long championed at O2. As well as being part of this scheme, our own Community Calling initiative is already landing in homes across the country – with donated devices and data connections allowing children to learn – and adults to get online – from home.”

In response to concerns that many pupils also lack a suitable device in order to study remotely, The DfE has said it will deliver 100,000 laptops to students this week, with 50,000 sent to schools for distribution on Monday alone.

It is part of a scheme to distribute one million devices to students by the end of the academic year, which the DfE said had already seen 560,000 sent out by the end of 2020.

According to estimates from Ofcom, between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children in the UK (9%) do not have home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, and that more than 880,000 children live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.

While the communications regulator’s Connected Nations report, which was published in December, said 190,000 properties across the UK cannot access a “decent” broadband connection.

There have also been calls for internet providers to “zero-rate” educational websites, meaning that pupils accessing websites and services needed for remote learning do not use any data allowance when doing so.

Matt Hood, principal of the online-based learning hub, Oak National Academy, said the cost of internet access was the “single biggest issue” preventing children from accessing learning during lockdown, with pupils from the poorest families in danger of being “locked out of lockdown learning”.

“It’s time for the big four telecoms firms to step up and do their bit,” he said.

“It’s very simple: make education sites zero-rated. This cannot happen soon enough and we would urge them to do the right thing and to do it quickly.”