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Digital divide narrows but 1.5 million UK homes remain offline

Gap between UK broadband haves and have-nots narrows as people have gone online to escape the lockdown and ‘proxy internet’ users emerge, but a significant minority remain digitally excluded

The ability for homes to access high-speed internet services has become critical in the new normal of the post-Covid hybrid world of work, and inadequate internet speeds have contributed to a digital divide since the first UK lockdown, but research from UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has revealed how deep the divide still is, although it is narrowing.

Such inequalities in home internet performance are impeding people’s ability to work and stay connected and carry out remote working effectively. Yet while business offices are likely to ensure a level playing field when it comes to internet bandwidth, other studies have revealed that home offices have inequalities in connectivity access that are negatively impacting professional lives.

As the country’s reliance on video conferencing has grown, people are most likely to worry about network performance on video or voice calls, with surveys showing that significant numbers have had problems with video calling and conferencing over the last few months, experiencing a range of issues, including being unable to load websites, stream videos or connect to video conferences.

The good news is that the new Ofcom research shows that the proportion of homes without internet access appears to have fallen from 11% in March 2020, when the UK first entered lockdown, to 6% of homes in March 2021. The bad news is that despite many more homes going online to support activities such as work and education, Ofcom also found that digital exclusion during lockdown is likely to be more disempowering than ever.

Groups least likely to have home internet access are those aged 65-plus, lower-income households, and the most financially vulnerable. Almost half of adults who remain offline say they find the internet too complicated, or it holds no interest for them.

Meanwhile, for more than one-third of people, lack of equipment is a barrier. However, three-fifths of those who don’t use the internet at home say they have asked someone to do something for them online in the past year – so-called proxy users.

Ofcom’s research on parents and children found that nearly all children of school age had online access in the home, and 4% relied solely on mobile internet access during the pandemic – with 2% only able to get online using a smartphone. School-aged children from the most financially vulnerable homes (5%) were more likely than those in the least financially vulnerable households (2%) to have mobile-only access.

About one in five children did not have consistent access to a suitable device for their online home learning. This increased to a quarter of children from households classed as most financially vulnerable. Most children with intermittent access had to share a device to manage home schooling. For 3% of schoolchildren, the lack of access to a device prevented them from doing any school work at all.

This is a situation that the communications provider community has taken steps to address. In January 2021, the UK’s operators joined the government’s kids’ mobile access scheme to help families that need access to connectivity to support their children’s learning needs during the lockdown at the time. And in a further move by UK comms operators to ensure children in disadvantaged households were not further held back by a lack of connectivity during the lockdown, London-based altnet Community Fibre began offering free broadband to the capital’s most vulnerable households.

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Yet the study and the continued existence of the digital divide is a concern to many. Emmanuel Vella, VP, EMEA broadband networks at communications networks connectivity solutions provider CommScope, said the news that 1.5 million households in the UK were still offline is a stark reminder that the digital divide is still very much present.

“We now all depend on speedy and reliable broadband as a key part of our everyday lives, and its significance continues to grow, with Covid-19-related lockdowns and restrictions placing an emphasis on the internet to connect societies,” he said. “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.

“Regardless of the [broadband] delivery mechanism, it is essential that all strata of society can access the most appropriate local service, including those that may need some financial assistance in doing so. 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 enhancing everyday lives across all areas of the UK.”

Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms analyst at UK broadband and mobile comparison site Cable.co.uk, added that with the UK government consistently promising fast internet for everybody, there is plenty it could be doing for those who cannot afford it. “It may be surprising to many that so many homes still do not have access to the internet,” he said. “As you might expect, these tend to be concentrated among older people, and those living below the poverty line.

“With the UN declaring internet access a basic human right all the way back in 2016, free broadband seems an obvious choice for inclusion in various welfare schemes – a move that would undoubtedly provide a boost to those who are struggling financially, and help those who are unemployed to find and apply for work more easily.”

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