Virgin Media O2 has announced the launch of a scheme offering free mobile data to people unable to access mobile internet or broadband at home.
Working in partnership with digital inclusion charity the Good Things Foundation, the mobile operator said the National Databank, which will be available to all networks, will provide free data for community groups to distribute across the UK.
Virgin Media O2 said the launch is a "direct response to the need for mobile networks to find a long-term solution to the data poverty crisis".
The National Databank will provide a central hub where community groups can access free mobile data voucher codes and Sim cards "for anyone who needs them".
Users will also be offered support including digital skills training and signposting to other essential services, the operator said.
The Good Things Foundation will run the National Databank through its network of 5,000 community groups.
Virgin Media O2 also worked with other digital inclusion experts including Community Organisers, Operation Wifi, Hubbub and Nominet in creating the platform.
The company said it will donate £12.5 million worth of O2 connectivity, the equivalent of 7.5 million GB of data, to the National Databank by the end of 2023.
It said this would provide 319 million hours of internet use to more than 200,000 people in need across the country.
Virgin Media O2 has also donated £500,000 to the Good Things Foundation to cover operational costs.
A three-month pilot scheme involving 10 community organisations in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is now under way, with a nationwide rollout to follow in November.
The organisers said they hope other networks will join the project, adding: "Working together, the industry has the power to provide connectivity to millions of digitally excluded people and families across the UK."
Virgin Media O2 CEO Lutz Schüler said: "The pandemic has escalated the UK’s data poverty crisis like never before – and with many millions of people facing digital exclusion, now is the time to come together and close the gap on digital inequality.
“Our industry has done remarkable things in recent months to keep customers connected when they needed it most, but it can’t stop there. By establishing the first ever National Databank with Good Things Foundation, coupled with a £12.5 million data pledge, we want to build a lasting legacy from the pandemic so we’re now asking our colleagues in the mobile industry to join us and help end data poverty for good.”
Good Things Foundation group chief executive Helen Milner added: "Having sufficient data in our increasingly digital society is not a nice to have, it’s an absolute essential. If you’re not online you can’t save money on products and services, help your children to participate in home-learning, and apply for jobs.
“We’re delighted to be partnering with Virgin Media O2 to launch the National Databank, which can be thought of as a ‘food bank for data’."
Digital infrastructure minister Matt Warman, said: "I welcome Virgin Media O2’s significant investment in the National Databank. This is a perfect example of industry innovation making a huge difference to people's lives, and will mean more practical help for those on low incomes to get online and access the endless benefits of digital connectivity."
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