This month the European Commission released its Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) and ranked the UK seventh out of the 28 EU countries, down from sixth place in 2016. The Government has committed to invest in improving digital infrastructure, with recent announcements on fibre and 5G, but there needs to be a targeted commitment to ensure society’s most vulnerable groups are not left digitally excluded.
Increasing access to online services is essential if we want people to lead more productive lives and access the benefits of the digital age. Authorities such as social landlords, local authorities and governments have been grappling with how to get people online at low cost for several years now. There has been some success in addressing the digital divide but there is still some way to go before we close the gap.
When I first visited the topic of ‘connecting the unconnected’ in 2013 it was estimated that 38% of household premises in Europe were digitally unconnected. In 2017, it is estimated that 74% of European homes subscribe to fixed broadband services, leaving 26% of European homes as digitally unconnected. In the UK, it is estimated that 78% of premises had access to fixed broadband by 2016.
DESI 2017 connectivity ranking across EU28 [Source: European Commission, 2015]
The digital gap has closed over the last few years for several reasons:
Smartphone availability is slowly making its way into lower income households
It is estimated that in Glasgow – an area where broadband take-up was particularly low compared to the rest of the UK – 88% of adults are now online largely due to smartphones. This can be put down to older devices being handed down (or indeed handed up a generation to older users) as smartphone contracts are renewed and new phones obtained as a result. Ofcom recently announced that smartphones have overtaken laptops as the UK’s number one device for accessing the internet.
The market dynamics have changed
In 2013, there were no service providers offering broadband solutions at the GBP5 per month price point, considered by many in the industry to be affordable to low income households. Several specialist social broadband service providers have since sprung up whose sole focus is to offer low cost – and in some instances, free – broadband solutions specifically designed and targeted to the low income social housing sector. Examples of specialist social broadband solution providers include Digital Unity Group and Social Telecoms.
There is greater recognition of the need for digital skills training
The provision of affordable and low cost connectivity is all well and good, but it is of no use if users are digitally illiterate and unable to use devices to search for jobs, pay bills or buy goods online. One example of how digital skills are being addressed is evidenced by the Scottish Government’s Digital Participation Charter. The Charter signs up leading organisations to offer volunteers to provide end users with digital skills training. In October 2016, the UK Government also announced plans to make training in basic digital skills free for adults lacking relevant qualifications.
So what does this mean for authorities such as social landlords, local authorities and governments wanting to improve the digital gap? Initially, they should undertake a comprehensive review of their resources and the availability of funding before embarking upon a digital inclusion strategy as discussed in more detail below:
- Sourcing model. Authorities need to establish whether they have the resources to design, build and operate their own broadband solution or whether they prefer an external social broadband service provider to take that role and provide a full service. It may be cheaper to do it yourself but you may not have the expertise.
- Contract model. Authorities may prefer to retain control of broadband contracts with the end users directly. Alternatively, some service providers will manage the end user relationship directly, meaning the authority is not inundated with contract issues, fault and complaints. Smaller authorities may prefer direct relationships with their tenants.
- Funding model. Some service providers charge authorities with set-up, line rental and maintenance fees. These fees can be passed onto end users. Alternatively, these costs can be absorbed by the authority if the desire is to minimise the costs to end user as much as possible. This entirely depends upon the availability of funding.
Such actions, in connecting more of the disconnected, will help authorities to close the digital gap still further enabling more people to fully participate in the benefits of the digital economy.