How to close the digital divide

24 Sep 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 24 Sep 2021

Fast and reliable access to the internet is now widely regarded to be an essential utility, just like water and electricity.

So where does that leave those of us who can’t access it?

Figures from 2020 show that 6.3% of UK adults had never used the internet with Northern Ireland having the lowest recent internet usage of 88%.

Twelve per cent of Northern Ireland’s adult population (1.4 million) is 168,000. That’s an awful lot of people who do not have an essential service.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital connectivity in myriad ways: from accessing benefits to staying in touch with friends and family, to school lessons, to shopping and to gaining access to vital services when they were no longer available face-to-face. And whilst so many in the public, private and third sector are justly proud of how they were able to switch so much of what they do online, this has served to heighten the disadvantages of the digitally excluded.

All the evidence suggests that those most likely to be left behind as the digital revolution expands and accelerates are older people, those who live in rural areas, and those in poverty.

This in turn generates three main thrusts if we are to tackle digital exclusion: ensuring that fast, reliable connectivity is available regardless of your location; providing education and training to those who struggle with the technology, especially older people; and ensuring that this essential service is affordable to all.

In recent years most of the focus has been on physical access, itself a major challenge. In Northern Ireland, as elsewhere there is a sharp divide between those in urban and rural areas.

Northern Ireland’s Rural Community Network (RCN)is a partner in the UK-wide initiative 5G New Thinking which empowers rural communities to take control of their connectivity.

Nigel McKinney represents RCN on the project.

He explained: “The basic problem is that Northern Ireland’s rural areas are under-served in terms of connectivity.”

The result has been partial and total “not spots” for mobile networks and patchy broadband coverage which still blights rural areas, to the considerable disadvantage of rural businesses, organisations and individuals.

 This might be essential infrastructure but the commercial market, which by definition, is profit-driven can only go so far.

That’s why Project Stratum was created under the DUP’s confidence and supply agreement with the Conservative government – it commits £165 million to improve broadband connectivity.

Even this may not be enough – hence RCN’s involvement with 5G New Thinking.

Nigel explained: “There are large geographical areas in Scotland, Wales and parts of England where there is not an economic case for commercial providers to build the necessary digital infrastructure. So communities there are taking things into their own hands.

“The idea of 5G New Thinking is to provide a toolkit to show communities how to do it themselves, covering everything that’s needed.

“So we are looking at its relevance for Northern Ireland – even Project Stratum has a cut off point and there is a risk that there will still be some areas where a community solution is viable.”

Nigel argues that we are on the cusp of a revolution in connectivity – and that this makes it imperative that we end digital exclusion as soon as possible.

He said: “There’s a lot of work going on across industry, health care, education, environmental monitoring which will open a new era for electronic devices. Tele-medicine for example will lead to more sophisticated devices, meaning people can have conditions monitored in real time, allowing them to stay in their homes for longer.”

But fixing physical connectivity is only part of the challenge.

If connectivity is essential, then it follows that it is also essential that every citizen has the knowledge and skills to thrive online.

This is not currently the case.

The Communications Consumer Panel is a statutory body which represents consumers’ interests to government. In its most recent report it concludes: “We have consistently heard from our stakeholders that consumers across the UK lack the digital skills and confidence required to participate safely and effectively online.”

And it adds: “consumers, citizens and micro-businesses fear being targeted by scams; and poor digital experiences can negatively impact confidence and motivation.”

Therefore investment in training for all who need it is a requirement – and it goes beyond that.  We also have to consider how to support those with disabilities, with low literacy levels and indeed those vulnerable people who are dependent upon others to access online services on their behalf.

These are urgent issues that need to be addressed. Government, business and support services cannot on the one hand say connectivity is essential whilst so many lack the skills to be effective online.

Then there’s the financial side of things.

Nigel said: “We saw very clearly during the pandemic how internet access was a necessity, and it was recognised that many families could not afford the devices required for schooling for example.

“But if tablets and other devices are replacing school books, should they not be free?”

And over and above that is there not now a case for providing a basic minimum level of service for everyone, with a right not to be cut off?

The most important point of all is that the debate about internet access goes way beyond the issue of physical connectivity. It goes also to ensuring that citizens have the ability to use it and/or the necessary support if they do not. It also raises questions about how we can regard it as essential if we have significant numbers of people who cannot afford either the devices or the charges involved in accessing it.

When the British Labour Party pledged free internet access for all in its failed 2019 election campaign, it was widely ridiculed. Two years and a pandemic later it seems a much more sensible proposition.


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