Digital exclusion has changed – Government action is needed to tackle it for good
In this guest blog, Josh Abey sets out The Fabian Society's recommendations to fix the digital divide following their new research.
The pandemic has changed our relationship with digital technology. All manner of life’s activities had already been shifting online but, almost overnight, Covid lockdowns forced a gear change.
A lot of people who were not using the internet before have now moved online. Ofcom figures suggest that the percentage of adults not accessing the internet at home has fallen, from 11 per cent to 6 per cent. This is an enormously positive development.
But people remain digitally excluded. 1.7 million households are not accessing the internet – still a substantial number (Ofcom 2022). People on low incomes are more than twice as likely as adults in general to be offline, while older people are more than three times as likely. And this exclusion has, in effect, become more severe because the internet is now so essential.
To overcome the digital divide we have to first understand why people are offline. As part of the Fabian Society’s Bridging the Divide project, we spoke to digitally excluded people and examined survey data. The research confirmed that two of the most significant reasons for people not accessing the internet are, firstly, the affordability of connections and technology; and secondly, a lack of digital skills and confidence. Around 10 million adults lack the most basic ‘foundation-level’ digital skills, according to the UK Essential Digital Skills benchmark report (Lloyds Banking Group 2021).
Organisations like Good Things Foundation have already been working to break down these barriers. Their Data Poverty Lab, for example, has been progressing the agenda on affordability. From this initial work, Good Things Foundation founded the National Databank with Virgin Media O2 and it is continuing to engage with people who have lived experience of data poverty. And their Online Centres Network has been bringing together community-based initiatives that provide the hardest-to-reach people with support to develop and build digital literacy and skills.
Some local authorities and telecoms companies have made great strides in their efforts to advance digital inclusion too. Greater Manchester has provided funding for a Digital Inclusion Lead in each of its 10 constituent councils, and the Greater London Authority has been actively promoting device donation and refurbishment. In addition, several internet providers now offer a ‘social tariff’ – a discounted internet package available to those on low incomes.
These initiatives have made an impact, but there is much more to do. There are some amazing organisations working on fantastic local initiatives, but they are under-resourced – while social tariffs vary dramatically in price and quality, as well as having a pitifully low uptake.
People at the sharp end of the digital divide now need to see bold action from the Government, to support and strengthen these efforts. Our Fabian Society report shows a way forward.
To ensure everyone can afford to be online, the Government should make it mandatory for internet providers to offer a social tariff through a broadband discount scheme, co-funded by industry and taxpayers. Under such a policy, all providers would have to offer a high-quality connection, for a maximum monthly price of £15, to those receiving means-tested benefits and disability benefits. To encourage uptake, new and existing benefit recipients should be automatically notified of their eligibility and provided with an easy-to-use discount code.
The Government should also step in to guarantee a free internet-enabled device to anyone that needs, but can’t afford, one – as identified by councils or charities. This would turn the existing patchwork of device donation initiatives into a nationwide entitlement for everyone struggling, building on work started this year by Good Things Foundation with their National Device Bank.
To tackle people’s lack of digital confidence, the Government should aim to deliver universal access to free basic digital skills support, provided where people live.
This could draw funding from the Adult Education Budget, and frontline public service workers could be trained to identify people’s needs and direct them towards these sources of help.
Our lives were changed by the pandemic, and our relationship with technology has changed too. Now we need government policy to evolve to match. Inequality persists and is pernicious. If you are an older person or live in a low-income household, you are still more likely to be excluded and the longer this goes on, the more the gap widens. The Government must take action now so we can all participate fully in society.
All opinions expressed in our guest blogs are those of the author alone.
Senior Researcher, The Fabian Society
Josh Abey is a Senior Researcher at the Fabian Society and leads the society’s Changing Work Centre. Earlier this year he authored Bridging the Divide, a report setting out policy proposals to tackle digital inequality. Josh previously worked for the Children’s Commissioner for England.