What is the digital divide in the UK?
The term' digital divide' is broadly used to differentiate demographics & regions that have different levels of access to:
- Information & communications technology (e.g. smartphones & computers)
- Fast & reliable internet access (through Wi-Fi or mobile networks)
- Adequate digital skills to fully utilise these technologies
Why does digital inclusion matter?
In a world that continues its march toward digitisation, huge benefits are available for people who can get connected to the internet.
These individuals can communicate instantly with people in their network, quickly find information online, do their banking from the comfort of their own homes, stream videos or music whenever they like, & sell goods on virtual marketplaces to huge audiences.
Whether for socialising, working, entertainment, or health & safety, connectivity is a vital part of living a prosperous life in the 21st Century.
People without digital connectivity are excluded from these benefits. This difference between the haves & the have nots is the digital divide.
What is the history of the digital divide?
The phrase 'digital divide' was coined in the 1990s to differentiate those who did & didn't have access to computers.
In the 2020s, the definition has more nuance as digital inequalities also come in other areas. These include the differing rates of mobile phone ownership, broadband speeds & expertise in using different software platforms.
Who suffers the most from digital exclusion in the UK?
Around 3.3 million adults in the UK have never used the internet. In the UK, this digital divide occurs both between regions & population groups.
Geographically, more rural regions suffer from digital exclusion than urban ones. When looking at internet non-users, London & the South East of England see the lowest levels at less than 7% & 8% of their populations. In contrast, Northern Ireland & the North East of England see internet non-users at 14.2% & 12.1% of their inhabitants.
This rural-urban pattern also continues around digital skills. In 2018, an ONS report showed that 19% of Wales' population had 0 digital skills compared to just 5% of the South East's. For reference, the population density of Wales is 150/km² vs 483/km² in the South East.
However, the divide is also pronounced between population demographics. Women continue to use the internet at lower rates than men. 58% of internet non-users are female in the UK. This disparity is the same regarding basic digital skills, with 61% of the people lacking any digital ability being female.
Digital exclusion also varies starkly by age group. Around 55% of people who never use the internet are 75 or older. In comparison, only 2% of internet non-users are aged between 16 & 34.
Finally, it is also proven that both mental & physical disability can be a barrier to digital inclusion. Disabled people in Britain are more than twice as likely not to use the internet when compared to non-disabled people.
What are the causes of the digital divide?
There are numerous reasons why these divisions exist between regions and groups.
Poor Rural Telecommunications Infrastructure
Rural areas tend to suffer from far poorer digital connectivity than urban ones, keeping people in these areas from getting connected. Ofcom estimates that around 651,000 UK homes cannot receive a decent fixed broadband connection of at least 10 Mbit/s download & 1 Mbit/s upload. Additionally, about 8% of the UK's geography has no 4G connection from any mobile operator. These connectivity not-spots again leave people unable to access the internet.
Lack of Need
Amongst older adults, a high proportion have declined using the internet as they haven't needed it in the past & don't feel it is worth the effort to learn now. Vulnerable elderly individuals are also more likely to suffer from age-related issues that stop digital engagement, including poor eyesight or cognitive decline.
High Equipment/Subscription Prices
High costs for electrical devices & broadband subscriptions can also play a role in causing the digital divide. 8% of internet non-users in the UK cited this as the reason they kept off the internet. With the average cost of a yearly superfast broadband connection being £477, this is an issue that will disproportionately affect those in an economically disadvantaged household. Unfortunately, 51% of households earning between £6,000 & £10,000 a year don't have internet access.
What are the effects of the digital divide?
With so much social interaction done digitally, people without internet access can see their lives disconnect from their friends & family. This can also prevent these people from being able to signal for help when they need it.
As online learning continues to become more prevalent in schools, children who don't have access to the internet cannot work effectively at home. This can lead to them developing a knowledge gap compared to their peers.
Stifled Economic Opportunities
Digital skills are a requirement for most employers - 75% of all jobs in the UK require at least some basic digital skills. Additionally, since the Covid-19 pandemic, 36% of jobs are now 'work at home' & not always in the office. Substantial home broadband speeds are subsequently needed for services that have high bandwidth usage like video calling. People without digital skills or access to suitable IT equipment are currently shut out from most job opportunities, damaging their income security.
A lack of digital infrastructure in certain communities can make the area less attractive for digitally dependent businesses. These places are more likely to suffer from a lack of investment & reduced job opportunities for the local community. They can also be expected to see lower rates of pay and higher rates of poverty as a result.
How to stop the digital divide?
Fortunately, the digital divide in the UK continues to shrink over time. The number of adults who don't use the internet has dropped from 10.2 million people in 2010 to 3.36 million people in 2021. This drop can continue day by day through numerous strategies increasingly making an impact.
Accelerated Broadband Rollout
UK government initiatives like the Project Gigabit scheme continue to support the roll out fast & reliable broadband to more & more homes. The plan allows homes & businesses in rural areas to get vouchers worth up to £3,500 to help install gigabit-capable broadband. You can find out if you are eligible for accessing the scheme here.
Improved Mobile Coverage
The Shared Rural Network deal is also increasing the delivery of mobile coverage across the UK. By 2025, the big 4 UK operators (EE, O2, Vodafone & Three) have pledged 95% combined 4G geographic coverage across the nation. This will increase geographic coverage for each operator by around 10-15%, providing mobile signal to previously unconnected & isolated communities.
Digital Skills Training
Councils & combined authorities are playing their part to help improve digital skills for their residents through various schemes that deliver online & class-based learning. Many areas are seeing partnerships between public & private sector organisations to create Digital Skills Partnerships (DSP). You can check to see if your region has a DSP that can provide you with free digital training activities here.
What is Streetwave?
At Streetwave, we are doing our bit to close the digital divide in the UK & abroad.
We map mobile coverage at every address in the councils we work with to enable people to see which network best connects them at their homes, businesses & places of leisure.
Centre our maps around your home to understand:
- The percentage of your local area that your service provider can cover
- How coverage quality will vary between rival operators in your area
- At current, which is the best operator to use for voice calling & data
Streetwave's data also empowers councils to identify key mobile 'not spot' areas & collaborate for coverage improvements from the operators.
Please find out how Streetwave can help service you & your council by visiting our website.