According to a recent study carried out by the Good Things Foundation, around an estimated 15.2 million people in the UK, are either non-users of the internet or limited users. Of that number, a massive 7.8 million have no access at all, with a further 7.4 million rarely accessing internet services.
So what is the digital divide? According to the UK Government, the digital divide is the gap between those who have access to technology, the internet and digital literacy training and those who do not. It affects all generations – both rural and urban communities – and a wide variety of industries and sectors.
It should come as no surprise that the staggering number of people with little or no internet access is made up of a cross-section of some of the country’s most vulnerable and at-risk groups. The elderly, disabled, poorest and least educated communities are all at risk of digital exclusion.
So what causes the digital divide, and what are the consequences for those affected? Another big question on many people’s lips is, why isn’t more done to bridge the gap? Or rather, who is benefitting from this divide?
In today’s society, there are many reasons that people need to be online. The internet opens up new income opportunities, creates the possibility of flexible working and allows access to important infrastructures such as education, council, and welfare services. It is now a necessity rather than a luxury.
The main issue for internet access for many is the cost. The cost of equipment and a stable internet connection is a luxury that many can’t afford. The price of equipment and connection will undoubtedly continue to fall in the coming years, but the cost will continue to be a significant barrier for excluded groups.
Many excluded groups lack time to access training in new technologies. This may be because other activities take priority over learning new technology skills, or because of a lack of localised training centres.
Lower literacy levels have a big impact on internet access and usage. People are less embarrassed to admit to a lack of technology skills than to admit to low literacy skills. This means people who have difficulty reading are more likely to shut themselves off from accessing training for fear of being found out.
People with disabilities may need modifications made to devices and equipment to access training in new technologies, and many local authorities and internet training centres lack the funds to carry out the work needed.
The Office of National Statistics (ONS) also notes that although the digital divide has constantly been declining since 2012, the numbers of women who are digitally excluded have been consistently higher than that of men. These numbers suggest that added caring responsibilities contribute to a lack of access.
On a broader level, the UK still lacks a proper connectivity infrastructure in certain regions and areas. Rural areas are disproportionately affected, but some towns and cities such as Hull and areas of the North East lack a stable connection too.
According to ONS, many people who do not access the internet said that they don’t see the need and have no interest in it. There is still a lack of understanding and education surrounding the necessity of internet access.
Other users felt that the cost to benefit ratio wasn’t worth it. This again boils down to a lack of education and understanding around the need to access the internet for essential services such as banking, benefits and local infrastructure.
For many people who are digitally excluded, it comes down to a lack of skills and confidence. This may seem a foreign concept for people who use the internet every hour of the day, but many people still freeze when they sit in front of a computer.
IT is getting better at improving user experiences and interfaces to make accessibility easier. Still, many systems, particularly older systems that underfunded training centres carry, are clumsy and may not be intuitive for first-time learners.
People’s ability to engage with digital literacy skills relies heavily on their confidence. Although we know the internet is a necessity in today’s world, it also carries a degree of risk. There is a lack of security, a host of online scams and hoaxes and cyberbullying to contend with, and for someone of limited confidence, this can be the biggest barrier to overcome.
The impacts of the digital divide are wide-reaching. According to the Digital Divide Council, the main impact areas are.
The internet offers a wide variety of instantly accessible information for students and teachers alike. The ability to go online and carry out immediate and robust research has led to ICT being cited as one of the driving factors in academic success.
Children who have no internet access at home are unable to carry out homework tasks assigned online. This means they are at a significant disadvantage against their peers when they return to the classroom.
It isn’t just school pupils who feel this divide. For adult returners at further education colleges, many of whom left school before the age of sixteen and are already in a vulnerable category, the lack of internet access can be the driving factor behind drop out.
Socio-economic issues are the biggest barriers contributing to the digital divide, and they are also one of the leading consequences of the divide. People who are cut off from internet services cannot shop online, receive the best prices and deals, or shop without spending money on petrol, buses, or taxi.
There are bigger socio-economic issues that come from lack of internet access. The ability to bank online and keep track of your money and spending is not available without internet access. Many high street banks have now closed their doors and will only answer certain queries online, which means a disadvantage in financial services for non internet users.
Local job centres now demand job searches are carried out online because most jobs will only accept online applications. This means that if someone is digitally excluded, they are effectively cut off from the job market and their ability to claim benefits.
Bin collections, rent payments and all other council services are rapidly going online, and health services are increasing their online presence instead of using more traditional triage and treatment methods.
The digital divide has been an issue for many years, but in the last year since the onset of the pandemic, the situation has worsened to the point of crisis. According to The Guardian, the scale of the issue is staggering, with more than 1.9 million households having no internet at all and tens of millions more reliant on expensive pay as you go internet.
There is a growing concern now that the digital divide has left tens of millions of the nations poorest and most vulnerable at risk of isolation and premature death now that COVID-19 has sped up the shift to an online world.
On the surface, it seems no one benefits from a digital divide. The socio-economic factors that keep people from digital inclusion are the same as those that are directly caused by digital exclusion. So it would seem logical that bridging the digital divide would benefit everyone.
The government pledged that they would leave no one behind in a digital world back in 2018, yet by 2019 UKtechnews was calling for the government to take action on the problem that was still very much at large.
Yet as the divide prevailed, the British government pushed ahead in making access to welfare services and some healthcare services exclusively available online. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau reported that 76% of their clients would not be able to access benefits services online. It appears that the welfare state’s burdens are made lighter by keeping the digital divide firmly in place.
The UK’s internet infrastructure is also heavily weighted in the southern regions, with the North East, Humber and Northern Ireland being particularly disadvantaged. Businesses, entrepreneurs and access to trade and economy are disadvantaged at every level in these regions.
The UK government isn’t the only sector that is at an advantage when it comes to keeping the digital divide in play. A report by Ofcom claimed that only greater competition could ensure Britains broadband future, which means that the larger broadband companies are profiteering from the current model.
If 2020-2021 has shown us anything, it’s that the digital divide is no longer a growing crisis. It is now one of the leading crises facing the UK today. The Coronavirus pandemic has plunged millions of digitally excluded people into darkness. Digital exclusions led to many people facing an information blackout that left them lacking proper access to healthcare, education, welfare and local services.
The only way forward as a society is to look at broadband as a social enterprise that bridges the socio-economic gap and provides some equity for the poorest and most vulnerable in society. After Coronavirus, we have a responsibility to stop engaging with multinationals who profiteered while our elderly were left isolated and vulnerable, and our kids couldn’t access school. We have to build back better by choosing local companies who invest in our local communities.