Ofcom: digital divide keeps 1.5mn UK homes offline
The past year, among other things, did a very good job of throwing a harsh light on the state of digital inequality across the world. With billions of people working from home during lockdowns and social distancing measures, access to high-speed, stable internet connectivity has emerged as a fundamental utility, akin to water or electricity, without which, modern life is essentially unlivable.
For those living on the other side of the , particularly in “developed” economies, where white collar jobs, online advertising and e-commerce play huge roles in the economy, a life lived off the grid can be an uncomfortable one.
There is some good news. According to Ofcom’s research, the number of UK households without access to the internet fell from 11% in March of last year to just 6%. However encouraging this may be, the data reveals that there are a staggering 1.5mn households in the UK without access to the internet.
The country as a whole, Vella added, depends on “speedy and reliable broadband” access as a key element of everyday life, echoing the fact that the significance of stable and fast internet access only “continues to grow, with COVID-19-related lockdowns and restrictions placing an emphasis on the internet to connect societies. And with the lines between “home” and “office” increasingly blurred due to the rise of remote working, having access to affordable connectivity is crucial so that local economies and communities can truly thrive.”
One positive element of the lockdowns over the past year, Ofcom found, was that it drove internet adoption among demographics that may otherwise have chosen to remain offline. Among the groups most likely to not have an internet connection are seniors. “Adults with previously limited digital skills have embraced online shopping, digital banking and video calling friends and family – while younger people acted as IT support, helping older or less digitally-confident friends and relatives get connected,” Ofcom’s report notes.
Courtesy of Ofcom
A retired woman from Edinburgh reflected on how a year lived remotely has forced her to become more comfortable with daily internet usage to do things like renew her driving license, saying that “Certainly, I’m more comfortable enquiring about things, I’m not so frightened of clicking buttons and making mistakes.”
However, for many people, a lack of interest or confidence isn’t the only barrier to getting - and staying - online. Ofcom’s report also found that, in addition to the 65+ age bracket, the most likely demographics to live without internet access are people living in lower income households and the “most financially vulnerable”.
As an internet presence increasingly becomes a necessity for people looking to find work, establish connections, and promote/run their businesses, internet access (as laid out in the last Labour Party manifesto) is increasingly an economic enabler.
Vella added that, "It is critical that everyone across the country has the same access to the opportunities brought about by broadband connectivity, and closing the digital divide will be a vital step in facilitating the delivery of a wide range of services and applications to improve business efficiency and productivity – as well as .”
For those living without access to the internet, the effects of the national lockdowns - as well as the increasing digitisation of the UK’s economy - is likely to “be more disempowering than ever” if the issue isn’t resolved.
"For many people, lockdown will leave a lasting legacy of improved online access and better digital understanding,” said Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s Strategy and Research Group Director.
“But for a significant minority of adults and children, it’s only served to intensify the digital divide.”
Digital transformation stumbles at the UK North-South divide
Since the dawn of Thatcherite Britain in the 1980’s, the division between the country’s North and South has grown into a social and economic gulf. Through the concerted efforts of Tory governance - and compounded by the neoliberal policies of the Blaire era - London has become the economic, cultural and social heart of the UK, much to the detriment of other industrial and population hubs, particularly in the North of England and Scotland.
In his 2014 essay, Thatcher’s Legacy Still Looms Large: The North-South divide in Britain’s electoral support, Ed Fieldhouse, the principal investigator of the British Election Study, and a professor at the University of Manchester, noted that during the economic turmoil of the 1970s and the deep recession of the early 1980s, “the North of Britain was hardest hit by economic restructuring and deindustrialisation.”
He adds: “The Conservative Party under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher became associated with neo-Liberal economic policies that many regarded as the solution to Britain’s economic problems. Others saw them as legitimising the mass unemployment of the era. Not surprisingly those favouring market based approaches were disproportionately likely to live in the South of Britain whilst the rest of the country favoured redistribution and government intervention.” Those policies, which spurred economic growth in the South (particularly in London), and stemmed it in the rest of the country, continue to shape the UK’s socio-political and economic makeup today.
Now, new research from Pulsant suggests that the UK’s North-South divide is extending into the age of digital transformation as well, something that could have dire consequences for the future of the nation as it makes its way into a post-Brexit future on one withered, shaky leg.
According to Pulsant’s survey of business and IT leaders throughout the UK, 61% of organisations in the South East and London say their location is advantageous to their digital transformation ambitions compared to just 41% in the rest of England.
“There is a clear regional divide emerging across the country as organisations strive for digital agility. The South East has better access to infrastructure, leadership and skills to drive change,” commented Pulsant CTO Simon Michie on Wednesday.
While digital transformation is recognised as essential to organisations on both sides of the divide (with 75% in the North saying transformation is ‘very important’ compared to 71% in the South) enterprises in the North of England say that a lack of specialist skills caused by the mass migration of talent to London is a huge barrier to success. “Lack of specialist skills is cited as the biggest barrier to digital transformation with 40% in the region saying this is the case. The majority in the North (69%) say location is a barrier to accessing talent compared to 51% in the South. Just under half (49%) in the North say they require niche skill sets that are not currently available, compared to just 35% in the South,” notes the report.
However, Michie also revealed that the North “has the biggest appetite for digital transformation which has been spurred on by the pandemic, but businesses in the region are struggling to keep up with the rest of the country. Various barriers are putting transformation efforts at risk and businesses in the region will need to focus on identifying where external skills, support and expertise are required to help them future-proof and reach their digital potential.”