Keeping Pace with a Digital AgeKatie Lester
The Path to Digital Inclusion
In an increasingly online world, which provides a wealth of economic and social benefits, there is a growing light on the reality and practicality of digital exclusion; those who feel unable to keep pace with the rapid levels of technological reliance that is shaping society and the way we live.
Research conducted by the DCF on the subject of digital exclusion in 2020 suggested that attitudes towards the increasing role of digital connectivity in society were mixed, and whilst many acknowledged that the increasing debate of technological reliance is a complex one, there was a general trend that those who felt digitally excluded were more likely to mention the negative aspects of the internet.
Digital exclusion can take many forms, having broad and far-reaching effects. As people increasingly live and manage their lives online, connectivity and the ability to access, use and understand services has never been more important.
Those who are digitally excluded may experience financial implications such as paying more for goods and services, inability to access financial support and financial exclusion. Educational resources can be harder to access, as well as job applications and social services. There is also the social element of increased loneliness and isolation, either from being unable to access the way in which many now choose to interact or from feeling overwhelmed by the rapid changes’ technology has had on modern life, preventing individuals from experiencing the many benefits they bring.
According to the Lloyds Essential Digital Skills Survey (EDS), 10 million people lacked the basic digital skills required for modern day life in 2021. Digital Skills are defined as the ability to use digital devices such as computers, smartphones and the internet.
Digital skills are a vital barrier on the path to digital inclusion and Government programmes such as Skills for Life, Essential – Digital Skills are working to address this. AgeUK also has an active Digital Champion programme, running from 2022-2026, which aims to recruit Digital Champion Volunteers who will help support older people in learning digital skills, or building the digital confidence required to fully interact with modern society.
Devices and services must also be designed in a way that is accessible and inclusive to all, as well as being advertised in such a way that those who may benefit are aware of them.
Other barriers include the cost of access, whether that is for the device or service. Internet Service Providers are doing great work in offering low cost, social tariff options for those who need them. However, Ofcom recently published research that suggested a lower than expected take up of these offers, with just 5.1% of those who are eligible signed up. This could be a signal that creative approaches are required, beyond more traditional advertising campaigns, to ensure offers are reaching those who need the support of social tariffs.
Industry is also acting beyond social tariff availability. Sky Up is a programme launched by Sky in 2022, which aims to upskill those who are digitally isolated through connectivity, training and technology. It will provide Digital Hubs for economically deprived areas and tech grants for young people including devices and connectivity to support learning. The programme aims to target two demographics who are at key risk of digital exclusion; under 25’s in low-income areas and over 65’s and will be underpinned by a 10million fund.
BT’s Skills for Tomorrow programme has helped 14.7 million people to develop their digital skills and aims to help 25 million people by 2026. BT also partnered with Home Start in 2022 with the aim of providing devices and social tariffs to help ensure that those at risk of digital exclusion have access to the connection they need.
TalkTalk have conducted work with the DWP to offer their 6 month no contract Fibre35 Broadband for job seekers. Ensuring they have the connectivity they need to access job opportunities, with an option to continue their contract or cancel with no associated fees at the end of their 6 months.
Some local authorities are also working with the private sector to provide devices to those unable to access them. Charities such as AgeUK may offer device loans and community organisations, in conjunction with The Good Things Foundation, have established the UK’s first National Device Bank to provide refurbished devices and data access.
Finally, there is the consideration of availability when looking at the digital divide. This includes access to fast reliable broadband universally across the UK. Notably rural areas have often struggled when it comes to faster connectivity, something which is being addressed by providers and as part of the Government’s Project Gigabit, which feeds into the Government commitment of 85% of UK homes having access to gigabit connectivity by 2025.
Indeed, the issue of digital exclusion is continuing to rise up Government and Parliament’s agenda, with the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee currently undertaking an inquiry into digital exclusion and the cost of living.
True digital inclusion requires a collaborative approach across Government, civil society and industry to tackle the various components which inhibit true inclusivity. This includes hardware providers, skills solutions and connectivity providers working together to create long term successful solutions. Effective change will require focused strategy and investment into the educational, structural and financial barriers associated with digital exclusion. This collected effort across sectors can help to ensure that as digital society increases and improves, digital inclusion moves with it.