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.”
Connectivity: Going Above and Beyond (the Atmosphere)
One of the key lessons taught to us by the pandemic is that, not only will universal, resilient, high-speed connectivity be an essential building block of the next decade, but right now, digital infrastructure is still a ways away from meeting those needs.
This is the digital divide. The idea refers to a growing gap between the underprivileged members of society (like the poor, rural, elderly, and handicapped portion of the population) who live without access to computers or the internet, and the wealthy, middle-class, and young people living in urban and suburban areas who have access to and can afford it.
Around the world, the digital divide between affluent, urban, digitally served communities and remote, marginalised ones is threatening to get bigger as carriers focus their 5G (and 4G LTE) efforts on delivering faster service to more populous markets. In many ways, it’s another reflection of the income and wealth equality that persists throughout multiple regions. However, if the world is going to pivot in the direction of a post-COVID-19 world where people can, and likely will, work from home, these disparities need to be addressed, before the benefits of the “new normal” become just another indicator of socio-economic and racial injustice.
Avanti: Breaking the Technical Barriers
UK-based communications firm Avanti may present at least a piece of the puzzle when it comes to solving rural connectivity issues. Founded in 2002, Avanti has spent the past 19 years growing into one of the global leaders in the race to deliver high-speed, universal telecom coverage from space. The company’s vision has been to design, build and launch a network of satellites that augment terrestrial telecom connectivity, broadening the reach of existing networks and bringing new generation tech (like 5G) to more people that was previously possible.
During the pandemic, Avanti CEO Kyle Whitehill notes that, “there has been a push to ensure satellite communications have a well-defined role in 5G networks,” adding, “there is no doubt that 2020 was a challenging year for many. The past year has taught us that it’s important for the satellite communications sector to be flexible and adaptable, and now, more than ever, come together to connect those in rural and remote regions, keeping lines of communication open for government bodies and medical professionals in times of crisis.”
In the UK, Avanti partnered with mobile operator EE (and fellow satellite communications company Gilat Satellite Networks) to develop a secondary network across the country to better support the needs of medical personnel and first responders. The leading role that satellite communications played in setting up this Emergency Services Network (ESN) could point the way forward for the role the technology could have in powering more resilient connectivity in rural and remote areas.
Beyond the UK, Avanti has been leveraging its technology across Africa in order to better support rural communities for whom internet connectivity has gone from a luxury to a non-negotiable necessity during the past year.
Supporting Vulnerable Communities From Above
In a world where, according to Avanti’s group director of HR, Debbie Mavis, we can expect to see people travel less for work throughout all parts of the world, delivering stable internet connectivity wherever and whenever people need it is going to be crucial.
“There are many ongoing projects that we are honoured to be a part of, and it is our aim to connect communities in areas where they don’t have access to good connection. We work directly with SINA (Social Innovation Academy) to provide refugees and host communities in Uganda with solar powered satellite broadband connectivity. This directly supports access to information, humanitarian and livelihood services within refugee settlements. The solution designed will also be installed into seven other sites across Ugandan Refugee settlements,” she explains.
“Looking ahead at the shift we are seeing in people travelling less for work in all parts of the world, it’s important to be able to provide high stable connectivity in remote regions. Our collaboration with SINA (Social Innovation Academy) will see high-speed internet access introduced across some of the most remote areas of East Africa, enabling refugees to access tools to increase self-reliance and rebuild livelihoods, in addition to reconnecting people with their loved ones online.”
“In spite of the challenges thrown up by COVID-19, we have achieved some great outcomes in connecting rural locations,” says Eva Court, Avanti’s director of carriers for EMEA. “We are working with the largest Mobile Networks Operators across Middle East and Africa, supporting them to expand their networks to reach rural communities across sub-Saharan Africa. We are doing this by providing VSAT connections as part of a turnkey solution, across 2G, 3G and 4G (LTE) enabled sites in rural areas.”
Court adds that the project is bringing connectivity to several locations which, “have never before been connected to the rest of the world in this way, ensuring inclusiveness of local communities.”
Based on these projects, Whitehill believes that satellite can provide a huge leg up to mobile operators looking to expand both 5G and 4G LTE services into rural areas where terrestrial infrastructure is lacking. “There are a number of key and immediate roles that satellite can play in the 5G ecosystem to help in the shift towards remote working,” he says. “These include, providing backhaul connections to remote and rural locations, as well as providing 5G services direct to homes and small businesses.”