Tins of Milo. Bags of rice. Cash handouts. These are things people usually donate to the poor and vulnerable here.
But 7,370 StarHub customers have donated their unused mobile phone talktime, as well as unused data and SMS message allotment, instead. These will be channelled to 500 beneficiaries from five charities to help them with their basic communication needs for a year.
The move helps to bridge the rich-poor divide in highly connected Singapore, where the gap is often less about empty stomachs than a digital chasm.
For example, some breadwinners cannot afford calls home to check on parents or children. Some students do not have Internet access to do project work.
About 13 per cent of local homes - some 150,000 households - have no computer, Internet access, or both, the latest data from the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) shows.
Telco StarHub started its donation drive in July and some beneficiaries received SIM cards preloaded with 120 minutes of talktime, 500 SMSes and 1.5GB of data usage for monthly use last week.
"It's an innovative idea because one doesn't need to dig deep into his pocket to help out and with popular messaging apps like WhatsApp, a lot of talktime and SMS are left over every month," said student Chan Cheong Yew, 26.
The beneficiaries were selected from five voluntary welfare organisations, from those helping the visually handicapped to others that help people with disabilities or cerebral palsy.
These charities were picked as their clients and caregivers have a greater need to stay in touch with their loved ones, potential employers and medical helpers through mobile communication, said a StarHub spokesman.
Asian Women's Welfare Organisation chief executive Tim Oei said: "With this help, our clients will be able to save some of their limited funds for other basic needs and yet have a very convenient way of communicating with their family and friends."
The National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) said some corporations have stepped in to meet these needs, which are essential in the digital age.
"There is a need and potential to bridge the digital divide for the poor and vulnerable with corporations or individuals who can use technology solutions or devices to help them," said Ms Melissa Kwee, chief executive of NVPC.
"Some corporations are taking the lead to help the seniors or needy groups stay connected to the Internet or by providing them the tools or hardware," she said.
For example, the other two Singapore telcos, M1 and SingTel, have customised and discounted mobile plans for people with disabilities. StarHub has a similar plan for those who are blind or deaf.
The authorities are also pitching in. IDA announced late last month that some low-income households will soon get a tablet computer as well as a high-speed broadband connection for $6 a month.
Freelance masseur Suhaimi Mansoor, 58, who is blind, received a preloaded SIM card from StarHub last Thursday.
He uses his phone mainly to check on his 74-year-old mother, who is prone to falls, as she is alone at home when he is at work. He used to switch off his cellphone when he gets home at 6pm.
He said: "Now, I am not so worried about talking too long and I don't have to count the minutes."
This article was first published on Oct 14, 2014.
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