Ian Georgeson

Evidence emerges of new digital divide in UK connectivity

Study shows extent to which online connectivity impacts quality of life but reveals that renters are nearly twice as likely to describe their connection as only average or unreliable, compared with home owners

A joint study by the Quality of Life Foundation and UK gigabit broadband provider CityFibre has revealed that although the importance of online connectivity to the nation’s overall quality of life is growing, the need to ensure that no one is left behind in the national full-fibre roll-out is not being addressed.

The fieldwork for the study of 1,012 UK online adults was carried out on 28 and 29 April 2021 by Portland Communications’ specialist research team for CityFibre. The standout finding was the extent to which, after a year of Covid restrictions, we all now rely on connectivity as a central part of our everyday lives.

Just 1% of people now say the internet is not important at all to their lives, and 42% say the internet is now so important that their lives would be impossible without it – up more than one-third from pre-pandemic levels. As many as 80% of people now say day-to-day life would be impossible or significantly worse without online connectivity.

Yet the study also highlighted that increased reliance on connectivity during the pandemic has put intense strain on the UK’s legacy networks, with 69% of people, home owners and renters saying they have experienced interruptions, such as service dropouts, in the past year.

The overall experience of people relying on their connection over the past year has led to the nation giving its ageing legacy networks a slightly above average 6/10 rating when asked how easy it has been to perform tasks such as home schooling or working while in lockdown.

Although the vast majority (87%) of people said improvements to the speed and reliability of their connection would improve their quality of life, the quality of connections was found to vary significantly, depending on whether a respondent was a home owner or a renter.

Home owners found it one-fifth (21%) easier than renters to perform tasks such as home working or online schooling. Respondents were asked to provide an “ease” score (from 1-10) for a range of tasks commonly taken on at home during lockdowns and involving online connections.

Across these tasks, renters provided an average ease score of 5.8/10, while home owners gave an average ease score of 7/10. This is a gap of 1.2 which, as a percentage of the 5.8, is 21%.

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Respondents were also asked to rank their satisfaction with the reliability of their online connectivity during lockdowns. Some 27% of renters described the reliability of their online connections as either average or unreliable, compared with 16% of home owners who said the same.

“Lockdown has put pressure on every part of our lives, and the digital infrastructure supporting this country is no different,” said CityFibre chief executive officer Greg Mesch. “Slow and unreliable copper-based networks are no longer fit for purpose. The nation’s upgrade to fast and reliable full-fibre connectivity can’t come soon enough.

“What this research highlights is that those in rented or social accommodation are often worst affected by poor-quality connectivity. Often the biggest challenge to address this is securing permissions from landlords to install new full-fibre networks. Industry, landlords and the government must redouble their efforts to overcome this barrier quickly to ensure that no one is left behind.”

Quality of Life Foundation co-director Matthew Morgan added: “The lockdown has amplified how dependent we all are on digital infrastructure for our quality of life. From connecting to friends and family to home schooling or home working, the ability to access fast, reliable broadband has a clear effect on our social and psychological wellbeing.

“But what this research demonstrates is that our access to broadband is unequal – not just in an urban or rural context, which is well known – but across different types of housing. Once again, it is renters, already disproportionately affected by Covid, who feel the detrimental effects of poor broadband most keenly.

“Going forward, we will be talking with developers, local authorities and housing associations so we ensure that housing of every tenure is equipped with fast broadband, improving connectivity for those people who are currently losing out.”

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