David Hennell, Business Development Director at National Broadband, discusses the threat of digital deprivation and what can be done about it
The ‘digital divide’ was brought into sharp focus by the COVID-19 pandemic, with high quality internet connectivity becoming vital to accessing crucial services for our day to day lives.
However, as we look to recover economically and firmly put the pandemic behind us, important issues around ‘digital deprivation’ and its effects remain.
The Government has had strong rhetoric when it comes to its ‘Levelling Up’ agenda as well as its promises to close the ‘digital divide,’ but it’s crucial that we see these fine words backed up by equally strong action.
The ‘digital divide’ can harm people and communities
During the height of the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic in April 2020, almost half of UK workers were working from home, and just 31% of people were travelling to work. Whilst many have returned to offices or hybrid working, this shift towards and greater reliance upon digital connectivity is without doubt here to stay.
Consequently, our approach to closing the ‘digital divide’ must alter. Prior to the pandemic, closing the digital divide may primarily have been seen as an opportunity to further boost the economy, but now the significant consequences that people and communities will suffer if we fail to bridge the gap have been thrown into much sharper relief.
In more rural locations this becomes even more pertinent, as reliable broadband connectivity is all too often overlooked, leaving people and communities digitally isolated. Digital exclusion is a rapidly growing type of social deprivation and increased reliance on good internet connectivity as highlighted during the pandemic has actually worsened many of the disparities that individuals who are digitally excluded already face. These range from employment and education outcomes to access to essential services online
Why digital investment is crucial for changed realities
As the cost of living crisis becomes a reality in the United Kingdom and economic growth slows, the ongoing prospects of digital exclusion could well consign people to a future beset by economic hardship. The Government has started setting up programmes to connect rural communities with fibre broadband, but this is taking considerable time – and all too often, rural home and business owners are expected to foot costs running into the thousands of pounds themselves if they want access to fibre-based services.
And yet rural communities need access to broadband every bit as much as their urban counterparts and the formers’ inability to access fit for purpose connectivity hampers business growth, stifles economic opportunity, all of which inevitably contributes to rural economic decay.
Digital investment is critical, as the Covid-19 pandemic has in part led to an acceleration in the adoption of newer digital technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, and full fibre broadband. If not managed and funded properly, this has the potential to exacerbate socioeconomic disparity by putting individuals who have no access to the benefit from such communications infrastructure technologies at an even greater disadvantage.
Therefore in order to navigate this transition, digital skills and connectivity need to be at the forefront of post-COVID recovery plans in the UK as these will not only raise national productivity but will also improve the lives of those hundreds of thousands of households – comprising millions of people – who are currently at extreme at risk of being left behind in this digital age.
Where does current strategy from the Government need to improve?
As the country recovers from the pandemic, the Government simply must not overlook rural communities and businesses. If its current Levelling Up agenda is to be a success, then digital transformation and data-driven decision-making need to be at the forefront of the agenda as this will enable employees and citizens on a true nationwide basis to thrive in a digital-first world.
Attempts to bridge the digital gap must be enacted as soon as possible. Such is the rapid pace of change and increased reliance on digital connectivity, further delay will leave far too many unable to make up the lost ground. A focus on expanding access to inexpensive broadband connections that can be implemented quickly will be crucial. The Government needs to recognise this and partner with the wider telecommunications and technology industry to take a much more holistic and technology-neutral approach. By looking into alternative solutions such as 4G and 5G broadband delivery, the Government will be able to ensure that harder to reach communities get connected to high speed broadband far sooner.
As we look to the future in a post-pandemic world – and one that will be increasingly better connected – the Government must surely deploy budgets to address the greatest needs. Rather than spending hundreds of millions to fund providing those in more urban environments who already have perfectly good broadband with even faster full fibre connectivity, surely it is more logical – and frankly more ethical – for the Government to look to get the most digitally disadvantaged in rural communities connected with high-speed broadband as a matter of far higher priority, thus preventing the digital divide from growing ever wider.