In September, Chorus plan to start shutting down its copper phone and broadband network. This will eventually mean that its customers will be forced to switch to alternatives, such as ultrafast broadband. For many older people, this change could be challenging, especially those who are not digitally savvy or reluctant to embrace technology.
To add insult to injury, Chorus has announced that it will increase the wholesale price of its 100 megabite ultrafast broadband plan by $1.15 a month, to $47.15, in October. That’s despite many of New Zealand’s retail providers calling for a decrease. Inevitably, a Chorus price hike will increase the number of people that are excluded from accessing the internet. For someone living alone on a pension or relying on other financial support, for example, the monthly cost of a basic internet package can be prohibitive.
The cheapest fixed-line, fibre plan currently being advertised by internet provider Skinny is $73 a month – that’s about 4% of a single person’s after-tax pension payment. Low-priced offers from other providers, including Orcon, are substantially more again ($89.95 for its Fibre 100 package for example). If you live rurally, these prices can grow exponentially – Vodafone’s combined rural broadband and phone packages start from $105.99 a month. And that’s without factoring in associated costs, such as connection fees and the cost of a modem (commonly about $99).
When you add it up, it’s an exorbitant amount of money required to access a service that is becoming widely accepted as a basic human right; in fact, in 2016, the United Nations declared internet access disruption as a human rights violation. And that’s before any further cost increase. Craig Young, Chief Executive of Technology Users Association, agrees that a proposed price rise will escalate an already inflamed issue: “One of the things that concerns me is the ‘digital divide’. Is that a low enough price to get people on to being connected? It probably isn’t.”
Vodafone NZ spokeswoman Nicky Preston says that what would make the most difference to customers would be if Chorus shelved the October price rise. “The majority of our customers are on the most popular ‘white bread’ fibre plan, which has a wholesale cost set to go up from October 1, yet Chorus appears to be highlighting discounts on an ‘artisan sourdough’ plan which is much less popular. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help the customers who are most in need right now,” she said.
This continued trend of excluding vulnerable populations from necessary services is worrying to say the least. First it was the decrease in postal delivery days and the decline in publicly accessible post boxes across parts of the country. Banks, too, have been increasingly closing their physical branches while this year we say goodbye to cheques being accepted by New Zealand banks.
At Eldernet, we know that technology can be hugely beneficial to people; after all, we were one of the first websites in New Zealand at a time when the internet was seen as a passing fad. But we agree with the Citizen Advice Bureau’s estimation that the increasing reliance on online services is resulting in “some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable people and communities being left behind.” 
Ensuring people stay socially connected with their loved ones is crucial to support them as they age. Yet as decisions continue to be made that put ‘profit over people’, hope of remaining connected as we age is disappearing into the ether.
 Citizens Advice Bureau, Face to Face with Digital Exclusion report, February 2020 https://www.cab.org.nz/assets/Documents/Face-to-Face-with-Digital-Exclusion-/9c5f26012e/FINAL_CABNZ-report_Face-to-face-with-Digital-Exclusion.pdf