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Millions of vulnerable people in the UK live in digital poverty

The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in digital access in the UK. Without nationwide infrastructure investment, millions of families may be left out of the digital economy.

Millions of people in the UK still live in areas without sufficient quality of internet access, lack relevant digital skills, and cannot afford to get online. Now, this growing digital poverty threatens to not only entrench existing economic inequalities but to undermine the UK’s digital-led recovery.

As work and education have shifted online, it is more critical than ever that people have secure and reliable internet access. But more than one million households in the UK still do not have any internet access, according to the ONS, with many more lacking access of sufficient quality to cope with the demands of the digital economy. 

According to Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, 150,000 residential premises across the UK fall below what is judged to be a “decent” level of internet coverage – a download speed of at least 10Mb/s and an upload speed of at least 1Mb/s – while nearly 250,000 more can access suitable upload speeds but not 10Mb/s download speeds. 

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The majority of these households in England and Wales are in rural areas, Ofcom’s latest report shows, where the lower population density makes internet infrastructure more expensive to build per capita. But 43.2% of premises failing to meet the watchdog’s USO standards are in urban areas, as are 28.7% of those unable to receive speeds of 10Mb/s.

The problem is worst in Northern Ireland, where one home in 20 lacks the infrastructure to receive decent speeds, but thousands of homes in other parts of the UK are also underserved. In London, 6,898 residential properties are unable to get speeds of 10Mb/s, which – although a small number as a proportion of the population – highlights the universal nature of the UK’s connectivity issues.

Data or dinner: from data poverty to economic inequality

A recent study launched by innovation foundation Nesta is looking to measure Britain’s widespread, but poorly documented, digital deprivation. Identifying and addressing data poverty – which it defines as individuals who “cannot afford sufficient, private and secure mobile or broadband data to meet their essential needs” – is central to “supporting a sustainable economic recovery and driving productivity in the months and years ahead”, say its authors, as ubiquitous internet access is a key driver of social innovation.

Many people already faced the uncomfortable choice between “data or dinner” before the pandemic, but Covid-19 has exacerbated inequalities at a time when digital access has never been more important, says Lang.

“[There’s] this idea of same storm, different boats as far as the pandemic is concerned, [and] as it relates to these issues of digital and data exclusion, that’s very much the case,” he says. “[Covid-19] will have significantly exacerbated existing inequalities, and it will probably have given rise to new types of inequality.”

These economic inequalities that arise from this data poverty will become more pronounced as businesses move to remote work and online-only commerce. A widespread shift towards remote work will therefore need to be accompanied by a nationwide investment in digital infrastructure or a large chunk of the population will be left, warns Adam Lang, head of Nesta in Scotland.

“Making sure that is equitable across the geography of the country is absolutely vital because that’s how you build the enabling infrastructure to allow people to seize those opportunities,” he says. “There is a risk if we rush into things without making sure we’ve got that national-level infrastructure in place to ensure that people in the Highlands have the same level of access to secure, high-speed, high-quality data infrastructure as they currently do in some of the urban areas.”

To address disparities in access, the UK government introduced a programme at the start of the pandemic to allow households below the internet speeds threshold to apply to BT – or KCOM if they live in Hull for an upgrade to their service. But early reports show that hooking up many remote areas with good service is proving costly: BT is only obligated to pay for fees up to £3,400 and the Local Government Association estimates that 60,000 premises will have to foot additional costs to upgrade their access.

Some rural residents have been quoted fees in the tens of thousands of pounds by BT to have their homes connected, prompting Ofcom to launch an investigation into the way these price estimates are calculated.

Some rural communities have already taken it upon themselves to upgrade their connections. Parts of rural Lancashire boast some of the fastest connections nationwide after fitting their own fibre optic cables to upgrade the quality of local internet access. This has boosted local enterprises by increasing online sales at a time of plummeting footfall on the high street.

The cost of internet access

It is not just poor coverage that limits access to the internet: the cost of accessing data packages remains prohibitive to many, let alone the additional costs associated with upgrading to a high-quality connection. As many as one million households in the UK struggled to afford their broadband bills during the pandemic, according to an Ofcom report in December 2020.

Analysis by PointTopic in May 2020 found that affordability of entry-level broadband packages varied greatly. Households in Wales and the south-west, north and east of England typically spend “seven times more on entrylevel broadband services as a percentage of net annual income, around 2.35%, when compared with the “cheapest” areas, which pay around 0.33%.

While this may seem like a relatively small proportion of income, the report finds that it is prohibitive for many households living in income-deprived parts of the country – and these cost barriers have only been compounded by the pandemic.

During 2020, Ofcom estimates that around one million households – more than one in 20 – reported at least one affordability issue with their broadband services. Although young people were not more likely to experience issues, the affordability issues they did experience were three times more likely to end up with missed payments when compared with all households.

 

A consequence of these affordability issues is that an increasing proportion of households are being disconnected by their providers. While disconnections dropped off over the first few months of the pandemic, they surged above pre-pandemic levels in September, showing that the most disadvantaged households were feeling the pinch from ongoing restrictions and economic uncertainty.

While affordable packages are being offered through means-tested or benefits-based programmes, uptake has been low due to low levels of awareness, the report finds. For many, even the costs of these subsidised programmes are prohibitive. 

Emerging technology will widen the digital skills gap

Even with access to more affordable services, for many of these households, a lack of digital skills is another limiting factor, says Martin Schaaper, an ICT analyst at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

“Skills development is very important, not just for the elderly [but] also for the rural, for the lower educated, for minorities,” he says, adding that addressing this gap would have knock-on benefits for the economy. “Certainly, bringing people online will be good for the companies themselves and for the economy in general, because [then] people will discover things online and will use services online.”

One in 11 UK adults were found to have no foundation digital skills in 2020 according to a survey conducted by Ipsos Mori on behalf of Lloyds Bank. An additional one in 12 people were found to have only some of these skills, which include basics such as turning on a digital device and logging into profiles, connecting to wi-fi and changing a password.

In addition to the age of participants – 28% of those aged 65 and above had no foundation skills there were clear divides in digital literacy across levels of income, education and social class. Wealthier and better-educated people tended to have higher levels of basic digital literacy, with as many as 40% of those with no formal education having none of the foundation skills.

The survey also assessed participants on 29 more complex life skills, such as the ability to use digital banking, store documents in the cloud and access public services online. On average 78% of the population were found to have all of these life skills but, again, this differed significantly along demographic lines.

For instance, 89% of people in work were able to access public services online compared to just 47% of retirees. This raises questions about the effectiveness of a new wave of ‘digital-by-default’ services offered in areas such as banking and government support, which risk cutting off support for the most vulnerable sectors of the population.

The digital age-gap also begins earlier when it comes to these life skills, with just 74% of those aged 55 to 64 possessing all 29 digital life skills.

Of the skills surveyed, UK adults have the least confidence when it came to storing documents in the cloud (73% were able to do so) and accessing online resources such as tutorials, FAQs and webchats to solve problems (also 73%), suggesting that the accelerating adoption of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies poses an even greater challenge. 

Addressing this evolving skills gap is a critical part of achieving an effective and equitable recovery, with much of the economic fallout from Covid-19 still to come, warns Lang. 

“In a world that is shaped increasingly by things like automation, AI, machine learning, cloud computing, Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, understanding skills employers need now and in the future is really critical,” he says. “These are deeply interconnected issues in terms of the deployment of core skills that people currently have and [accessing] economic opportunities [and] issues such as data poverty.”

Amy Borrett

Amy Borrett is the resident data journalist at Tech Monitor.

Patrick Scott

Patrick Scott is the projects editor on the New Statesman Media Group's data journalism team.