UK’s digital divide narrows, but deepens

Ofcom has heralded a narrowing of the digital divide in the UK, with statistics showing an increase in household connectivity over the past year fuelled by the restrictions linked to Covid-19.

Mary Lennighan

April 28, 2021

5 Min Read
UK’s digital divide narrows, but deepens

Ofcom has heralded a narrowing of the digital divide in the UK, with statistics showing an increase in household connectivity over the past year fuelled by the restrictions linked to Covid-19.

But while more people having access to the Internet is doubtless something to be cheered, the fact remains that many still do not have connectivity and in a world that has increasingly gone online over the past 12 months, that is a more isolating prospect than ever before.

Around 1.5 million homes, or 6% of the UK total, did not have Internet access as of March this year, down from 11% in March 2020, Ofcom latest research shows.

Technically, Ofcom says that “the proportion of homes without internet access appears to have fallen” by that amount, noting that comparisons are only indicative due to enforced methodology changes. Based on its own survey results and household estimates from the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey (LFS), the UK regulator puts the number of UK households without Internet access at somewhere between 1.3 million and 1.8 million.

“Despite many more people taking a leap of faith into the online world, for the 6% of households who remain offline, Ofcom’s research finds that digital exclusion during lockdown is likely to be more disempowering than ever,” it said.

Indeed. While Ofcom points out that adults with previously limited digital skills have embraced online shopping, digital banking and video calling as a result of the pandemic, there is also a flipside; those who still do not use the Internet are cast even further adrift, with something as simple as buying groceries becoming a task that is not easily accomplished without help.

For some, the help is there. Younger people have acted as IT support, helping older or less techie friends and relatives get connected. Meanwhile, the concept of the ‘proxy user’ of the Internet has emerged, that is, someone who asks someone else to do something for them online. According to Ofcom, 60% of those without connectivity asked for help in this way last year, the most common request being online shopping.

As you might expect, those in the older age bracket are the least likely to have home Internet access. Ofcom’s study shows that 18% of households in the 65-plus age group do not have connectivity. But affordability is an issue too, with 11% of low-income households being without access and 10% of those that Ofcom describes as the most financially vulnerable. Indeed, 37% of adults without Internet access cited a lack of equipment as a barrier. 46% said they find the Internet too complicated, while 42% said it holds no interest for them.

Nearly all school-aged children had Internet access during lockdown, but the regulator raised concerns about those in low-income households. 17% of children did not have consistent access to a suitable device for their online home-learning, rising to 27% of children from households classed as most financially vulnerable, it said.

“For many people, lockdown will leave a lasting legacy of improved online access and better digital understanding. But for a significant minority of adults and children, it’s only served to intensify the digital divide,” said Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s Strategy and Research Group Director. “We’ll continue to work with Government and other partner organisations to promote digital literacy and ensure that people of all ages and backgrounds are empowered to share in the benefits of the internet.”

The Ofcom data coincides with the publication of a blueprint for a National Prosperity Plan by the UK’s Covid Recovery Commission, a group of business leaders charged with examining how the pandemic has impacted on the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda; its drive to reduce regional inequality in the UK, that is.

The report proposes a national prosperity scorecard, amongst other things, and contains plenty of information on addressing the skills deficit, boosting UK infrastructure, and reducing the carbon footprint, but surprisingly little on boosting connectivity, despite the fact that Vodafone UK chief executive Ahmed Essam is one of the 10 business leaders on the commission.

“Making digital work does not just rely on building world-class infrastructure. It also needs Government, regulators and industry to work in partnership to deliver programmes and policy that supports the investment needed in digital infrastructure, and makes it accessible to all, Essam said, in a statement. “To make this a reality, the Commission is calling for regulators to consider competitiveness, the investment environment and growth, alongside consumer protection.”

Building digital infrastructure will be crucial to the UK’s future though, of course.

New research carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) on behalf of Openreach shows that ultrafast fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband could bring 1 million people back into the workforce through remote working, and a £25 billion boost to productivity, the network operator announced this week. That’s more than double the number suggested by previous Cebr research, the change having come about due to the pandemic and the rapid rise of a working from home culture.

“Cebr’s previous research explained the economic windfall in store for the UK with a nationwide upgrade – including a £59 billion boost to productivity. And this updated report highlights how full fibre can help to level-up the UK, bringing up to one million people back into the workforce. With the challenges we face as a country, this an opportunity we can’t afford to ignore,” said Clive Selley, CEO of Openreach.

If you were feeling cynical, you could point out that Openreach was quite happy to ignore the benefits of full fibre for the UK until a raft of new competitors started to muscle in on its turf, but perhaps that’s a story for another day.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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