Reducing ‘digital exclusion’ in the UK was a key theme at Connected Britain 2018, where a host of speakers and panellists called on the industry to redouble its efforts on inclusivity
As the dust settled on Connected Britain 2018 this week, few who attended the event in London could be left in any doubt that the UK is sharpening its resolve to become a more inclusive and comprehensive digital society.
While huge efforts are being made to speed up the rollout of full fibre fixed line networks and to prepare the ground for an ahead-of-schedule 5G launch next year, there is still much to do if the UK is to make up ground on its neighbours in mainland Europe.
In her key note address on day one, the UK’s Minister for Digital set the tone for the event, when she implored the industry not to leave Britain’s hard to reach communities stranded as they look to boost coverage in densely populated, urban areas.
"Currently there are 1.5 million people and businesses in the UK who are struggling to compete in the modern world because they can’t get access to superfast broadband," she said.
While investment in the UK’s digital infrastructure is at an all-time high, James said that she wanted to see the rate of investment increase further.
"The recent announcements by BT, CityFibre and others are proof of the strong global interest in the sector – but we want the pace of that investment to increase," she added.
Bridging Britain’s digital divide is a key target for the UK government and is essential as the country looks to develop and evolve its digital economy, but the importance of providing ubiquitous broadband access runs deeper than the world of commerce, it effects every citizen in the country, as Chris Goulden, deputy director of policy and research at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation explains:
"The internet is an enabling and essential part of the infrastructure, like good transport or financial services. Lacking access to these means that people pay higher costs for essential goods and services, such as energy, food, or credit. For instance, they are less likely to be able to compare and switch providers to get a better deal. Digital skills and access is a direct way by which people can reduce their costs and improve their living standards," he said.
Startlingly, research carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that more than 13 million people in the UK (roughly 20 per cent of the population) lack the digital skills necessary to lead meaningful digital lives.
"At present, over a third of households in the poorest fifth of the population lack access to the internet – in the top fifth, it’s only 3 per cent. The digital gap is wide. Basic skills cannot today be seen as just literacy and numeracy. The internet is essential for all age groups, for accessing public services and better-value goods and services," he said.
Investment needed to close the gap
Britain clearly has a problem with digital exclusion, particularly among lower income families. It is a problem that the government recognises and it is currently taking steps to extend internet access bot in hard to reach geographies and in lower income households.
However, Goulden believes that the UK government needs to redouble its efforts if it is to meaningfully reduce the digital divide from its current levels.
"The importance of digital literacy is why in the “strategy to solve poverty in the UK”, published by JRF in 2016, we recommend setting an ambitious target to meet all basic skill needs, including digital skills by 2030. This would require doubling the current rates of participation. Priority should be given to people experiencing, or at risk of, poverty. This ambitious target would need refocusing of the existing £200 million annual investment in literacy and numeracy in England, plus a further £200 million of new funding," he said.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation welcomes the government’s decision to provide free digital skills training to adults in need. However, Goulden says that there are still concerns over how it will be funded.
"To make the most of this, however, it needs to be delivered to meet people’s needs for accessing public services and benefits, as well as reducing their living costs. The sting in the tail is – as ever – no extra funding is being put into adult education to deliver this. We need to make sure that other basic skills training doesn’t suffer as a result – otherwise, efforts to reduce poverty overall would be severely compromised," he said.
Friday Review – 22/06/2018