The digital divide in the UK
In a world increasingly reliant on the internet, from paying bills to working remotely, it is integral to today’s society. However, not everyone in the UK enjoys the same level of access to what has become a vital resource.
Following the Connected Britain conference, we delve into key trends within the telecommunications sector. In this first telecommunications blog in the series, we round up the causes of the digital divide in the UK and the four ways the telecom sector can work towards closing the gap. Follow this series to learn more about the future of the 5G revolution in the UK.
The narrowing digital divide
Before the pandemic, it was believed that the digital divide mainly affected older generations less comfortable with technology. However, the pandemic revealed a much broader gap, including households with lower incomes.
During the pandemic, many shifted towards online activities, reducing the percentage of households without internet access from 11 per cent in 2020 to 7 per cent in 2023, as reported by Ofcom’s 2023 Technology Tracker. Today it is this final 7 per cent of the population that needs the support to get connected, not just in terms of internet infrastructure but also in acquiring devices for online access.
The Internet: from luxury to necessity
Internet access has transitioned from a luxury to an absolute necessity. It is now considered the ‘fourth utility’ alongside gas, water, and electricity. Closing the digital divide in the UK will come with a wealth of benefits, minimising poverty and widening opportunities for those previously on the other side of it. Today nine out of ten jobs are exclusively advertised online according to a recent UK parliament report. As a result, those without easy internet access will find it increasingly difficult to find employment.
While the Government has expressed ambitions for widespread digital transformation in public services, the reality on the ground tells a different story. Insights from a report released in the report by the Communications and Digital Committee, emphasise the Government's neglect to address digital exclusion as well as the multi-billion pound potential on economic growth, public health, if this gap is closed.
Embracing the rapid pace of technological change
Today the pace of digital change is rapid and presents a viable opportunity to get the remaining 7 per cent of the UK on board. The Committee report highlights several opportunity areas including:
- 4 million people are still unable to complete a single basic digital task to get online.
- 5 million workers will be acutely under-skilled in basic digital skills by 2030
- 1 million people have cut back or cancelled their internet packages in the last year due to affordability issues.
To close the digital divide, we must facilitate equal access to digital resources and opportunities. In this 5G rollout has huge potential to support this.
What can be done to tackle the digital divide?
1. Inclusive government strategy
Baroness Stowell of Beeston, Chair of the Committee comments, “We have found a distinct lack of leadership in Government to tackle this issue. It is shocking that a digital inclusion strategy has not been produced since 2014 and the Government sees no need for a new one. It is vital we get a grip of this now.” And we couldn’t agree more. This issue must be supported by government legislation at the top for significant impact to be made.
2. Inclusive rollout
Today, teams responsible for technology rollout must consider not only the demand for 5G internet but also the social and economic factors that influence access. Connectivity to the Internet is not just a matter of convenience but a far wider social mobility oppertunity.
At Connected Britain, Boldyn Networks showcased how they are using platforms like Sensat's visualisation platform to visualise socioeconomic measures across London such as the multiple deprivation index to make informed decisions that benefit entire communities. By considering the broader context, technology rollout can be more equitable and inclusive.
3. Inclusive pricing
As we face the cost of living crisis, many households are having to cut back or cancel their internet packages. Today we need to find more ways that we can support these communities affected by supplying long-term financial support through internet vouchers and second-hand schemes that provide devices to those who need them.
4. Inclusive education
To bridge the digital divide, more is needed to solely focus on providing affordable access to the internet; addressing the skills gap is equally essential. The offline population requires extra support and resources to become digitally literate. One-to-one learning opportunities are essential for individuals who need more digital skills. Personalised training and assistance can empower people to become proficient in using digital tools effectively.
Bridging the digital divide in the UK is a complex but essential endeavour. The rollout of 5G technology offers hope for narrowing this gap. However it must be accompanied by efforts to address affordability, digital literacy, and access to devices. By taking immediate action, we can ensure that no one is left behind in our increasingly digital world, and 5G can play a vital role in making this vision a reality.
Next up in the Telecommunications series: Innovation accelerating network deployment.