Getty Images / WIRED
Another year, another lockdown. With schools across the UK closed, parents and caregivers are once again tasked with keeping their kids entertained and educated all day, every day – many whilst also holding down full-time jobs. Help is at hand. The BBC will be broadcasting lessons throughout the school day while Joe Wicks, the nation’s digital PE teacher, will bring back his classes from January 11. All of this and more requires one key piece of technology: fast, reliable internet.
Not all kids stuck at home will have decent enough internet connections, let alone access to hardware suitable for accessing distance learning tools. Between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children in the UK do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet computer, while more than 880,000 children live in a home with only a mobile internet connection.
To help combat this, the Department for Education is working with several UK mobile networks to get more people connected. Here’s how the Get Help with Tech scheme works and what it gives you and your kids access to.
Who is eligible?
The Get Help with Tech scheme aims to provide free internet access to those who need it in years 3 to 11. Most of what is on offer is not actually free broadband, it’s a free increase to mobile data allowances with 4G wireless routers.
As for home Wi-Fi access and allowances, BT is set to start giving out BT Wi-Fi vouchers direct to parents “shortly”. If similar to the vouchers proposed to the DfE last summer, this will provide web access, via its 5.5. million hotspots, for up to three devices for six months. BT has also given all its broadband customers unlimited data and it also sells a £10 a month Basic fixed broadband deal.
You can get access to the mobile data scheme if you are a customer of EE, Three, Sky Mobile, SMARTY, Tesco Mobile or Virgin Mobile. Vodafone and O2 have also now pledged to be part of the scheme but are not currently listed on the government’s website.
As well as access to additional data, another part of the scheme is to provide 4G wireless routers to those who may need them. Having a 4G wireless router would be particularly handy for households with more than one child who needs access to data, rather than simply one SIM receiving additional data. If you don’t have access to fixed-line broadband at home, cannot afford additional data for your devices or your children are experiencing disruption to their face-to-face learning then you could be eligible for this extra support.
The Get Help with Tech scheme extends beyond providing just internet access, with laptops and tablets also available to children who may require them.
The hardware is available to children in years 3 to 11 who do not have access to a device and whose face-to-face education is disrupted, children in any year group who have been advised to shield because they (or someone they live with) are clinically extremely vulnerable and disadvantaged children in any year group attending a hospital school.
The Department for Education recently said it plans to provide over one million devices to schools, colleges and councils, with 560,000 laptops having been made available to pupils since the start of the pandemic.
This support is available during the spring and summer terms, with data increases applying until the end of July 2021. The government website for the scheme does not currently set out clear dates for when access to this initiative will end, and if these dates may differ across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
How do you get the free data?
Rather than requiring parents to contact these networks directly, you should contact your child’s school who can then make the request for data, a 4G wireless router or hardware via the Get Help with Tech website.
The government website will require schools to provide the name on your account with your mobile provider, your phone number and the network you’re on.
For hardware, the government requires further information on how the school has identified disadvantaged children, including an understanding of internet connectivity issues and details of disadvantaged pupils joining the school since the most recent School Workforce Census.
The free data on offer varies between the different networks so it will depend on your provider. EE is offering 20GB of free data per month until July 2021, O2 will provide 40GB of free data per month and Three UK offers unlimited data per month.
Vodafone has offered 350,000 SIM cards with 30GB of data for 90 days, it’s unclear how this limited amount will be distributed and if other networks have a similar limit to the amount they are donating to the scheme. So how much internet use should the data on offer from the networks provide? According to uSwitch, browsing through around 60 web pages uses around 140MB. While MakeUseOf estimates you’ll get an hour of streaming YouTube at 480p for 562.5MB of data.
How to fix your existing Wi-Fi
Aside from getting data in the first place, a common issue of multi-person households – especially, when several people are working from home – is dodgy Wi-Fi. There are a number of ways to help fix your terrible Wi-Fi signal at home.
Router positioning is key – you don’t want it cramped as it’ll perform much better the more free space it’s given. A popular hack is changing the channels your router uses to help reduce signal congestion. It’s also worth checking your router firmware is up to date.
A slightly bigger step involves some extra hardware. This might include a Wi-Fi repeater or powerline adapter to help get strong Wi-Fi coverage around your whole home or simply investing in a new router altogether.
Adam Speight is a product writer for WIRED. He tweets from @_adamspeight
More great stories from WIRED
🐧 The mystery of the world’s loneliest penguins
🎲 Forget Monopoly. These are the best board games for adults and families
💻 Take control and stop yourself getting hacked in 2021
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn