Digital divides and rural realities
As the Minimum Digital Living Standard project progresses, Dr Emma Stone draws together insights from stakeholders and wider research on rural digital inequalities in this long read.
Over the summer, Good Things Foundation hosted five stakeholder workshops as part of our role in the Minimum Digital Living Standards project. One focused on experiences in rural areas, supplementing stakeholder research supported by the Welsh Government as part of developing a Minimum Digital Living Standard for Wales. (For info: MDLS is a feasibility study. It takes a bottom-up, holistic, household approach to defining a benchmark for digital inclusion below which families would struggle to feel digitally included. Developed with members of the public, the definition, benchmark, and rationales are in this interim report.)
With Loughborough University colleagues, we’ll collate insights from all five workshops. Meanwhile, a report today from Vodafone UK and WPI Strategy – ‘Connecting the Countryside’ – spurred me into writing this post and sharing relevant resources.
Connectivity in rural and remote areas is getting better, but is still a challenge.
Ofcom’s Connected Nations update carries useful data on what’s happening to fill in the gaps for broadband and mobile data coverage in remote and rural areas. While positive initiatives – the Shared Rural Network, ‘infill’ programmes in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere – continue, today’s Vodafone UK report is a reminder that the goalposts for ‘good enough connectivity’ keep moving, as 3G exits and 5G warms up.
Stakeholders in Wales (interviewed for the Wales MDLS research) pointed out the links between lack of 4G/5G access, populations in areas of higher deprivation, and how wider infrastructure barriers (such as transport and journey times) compound disadvantage. Words like ‘discriminatory’ reveal the depth and strength of feeling about rural digital disadvantage.
Frustration and anger expressed by rural residents and businesses across all UK nations also come out powerfully in this research video and report commissioned by Ofcom’s Communications Consumer Panel: The struggle for fairness: the experience of consumers, citizens and micro-businesses in remote and rural locations in the UK. While evidence from the Rural Services Network reminds of the impact of the cost of living crisis in rural areas.
Extra kit can be essential for rural connectivity.
We also heard from stakeholders about additional kit which rural and/or remote households might need to meet the Minimum Digital Living Standard:
- Kit like a booster, repeater or extender to boost WiFi in older homes with thick walls;
- Surge protectors or back up in places more prone to severe weather-related drop off;
- High quality routers and installation support to get the set up right in each house.
Rural digital exclusion is also about digital skills and confidence.
Connectivity is the more obvious challenge, but evidence from experience and research points to similar challenges around low digital skills and confidence in communities, and how this intersects with rural poverty, deprivation and wider disadvantage – as well as limited connectivity. Restricted connectivity also restricts opportunities to develop digital skills.
Last year, Lancaster University and the Work Foundation published important new research on digital exclusion in North West England, and implications for the Levelling Up agenda. A survey of 500 rural residents identified low digital skills, more than connectivity, as the key concern:
- 28% of the sample had low confidence in using core digital skills;
- Confidence was lowest among people looking for work or applying for jobs online;
- Rural respondents on low incomes, unemployed people, disabled people, carers, older people were more likely to have trouble doing things online than the overall sample; 45% of unemployed people, for example, relied on friends and family for help with the internet, and 40% of disabled people or carers.
Digital inclusion can bring even greater benefits in rural and remote communities.
The potential benefits of digital inclusion to people in rural communities was a clear message in our MDLS stakeholder workshop. The same message comes through wider research with rural and remote communities. Living in remote and rural areas means accessing online services can be even more valuable. As one stakeholder put it:
‘Rural areas are prime candidates to benefit from things like remote schooling and remote healthcare etc. but we need the connectivity!’
Stakeholders talked about online shopping, online banking, online schooling and training, remote access to healthcare (where a GP or hospital is far away), and access to services (such as mental health support) where there may not be any local service, as well as being able to access job search and support, and work remotely. Digital exclusion locks people out of these digitally-enabled opportunities and support mechanisms.
Solutions which are, and aren’t, rocket science.
When it comes to what’s needed to turn this around – some of the possible solutions (think Elon Musk and Starlink) actually are rocket science. Many are about governments and industry working together to build the digital infrastructure we need, and make it accessible and affordable for everyone.And some of the solutions are about community-based, and also internet-based, support to help people build their skills and confidence, through trusted, friendly, accessible support.
In 2014, we did a Rural Action Research project and produced a super-short handbook with top tips on supporting digital inclusion in rural areas – co-created with community partners in rural areas. It may be old, but it is still gold (and on our to-do-list for a refresh). But the really worrying challenge – highlighted in MDLS workshops and stakeholder interviews – is about social infrastructure in some rural areas, and the struggle faced by community centres, village halls, and library branches to keep going. While there are brilliant examples in the National Digital Inclusion Network of community organisations and libraries championing rural digital inclusion, we also know there’s more to do to grow the network in rural areas, and fix the rural digital divide.
Useful research links:
Good Things Foundation (2015), Digital Inclusion: the Rural Handbook – old but still gold
Lancaster University and Work Foundation (2022), Addressing digital poverty in rural communities is vital for Levelling Up the UK – Walker, T et al
Minimum Digital Living Standards Team (2023), Towards a Welsh Minimum Digital Living Standard – Yates, S et al
Minimum Digital Living Standards team (2023), A UK Minimum Digital Living Standard for Households with Children: Interim report – Blackwell, C et al
House of Commons Library (2022), Rural mobile coverage in the UK: Not-spots and partial not spots
House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee (2023), Digital Exclusion
Ofcom (2023), Connected Nations update: Spring 2023
Ofcom Communications Consumer Panel (2023), The struggle for fairness: the experience of consumers, citizens and micro-businesses in remote and rural locations in the UK
Ofcom Communications Consumer Panel (2023), The struggle for fairness: Research Video
Public Health Wales (2020), Digital technology and health inequalities: a scoping review – Honeyman, M et al
Rural Services Network (2023), Written evidence to the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee inquiry on digital exclusion (DCL0028)
Vodafone UK and WPI Strategy (2023), Connecting the Countryside
And if you’ve read this far…
You might also be interested in making your views heard in two UK Government open consultations from Department of Science, Innovation and Technology until 27th November:
- Reviewing the broadband Universal Service Obligation – GOV.UK consultation
- Improving broadband for Very Hard to Reach premises – GOV.UK consultation
Dr Emma Stone
Director of Evidence and Engagement
Emma leads a team of specialist experts - skilled in service design, user research, evaluation, data insights, marketing, communications, external affairs and advocacy. A social researcher by training, Emma has straddled research, policy and practice for two decades. Before joining Good Things Foundation in 2018, Emma worked at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation where she led the Policy and Research department, overseeing programmes on poverty, place, housing, ageing, disability, race equality, and communities. Emma draws on her wider understanding of social, economic and health inequalities to inform Good Things Foundation’s strategy and delivery.