Written by David Hennell, Business Development Director at National Broadband
The pandemic caused a seismic shift in our daily lives, drastically increasing people’s reliance on digital connectivity for both personal and professional purposes. The digital divide, particularly between rural and urban populations, became an issue of increased and immediate importance. To the Government and the wider industry’s credit, they stepped up in their attempts to provide the digitally disadvantaged with access to the services they required. However, as the Government and public look to put the pandemic behind them, that focus on closing the digital divide has waned.
This diminished attention does not mean this issue has gone away or been resolved. In fact, it requires a continued if not renewed focus. As the long-term economic shadow of the pandemic begins to loom large, there’s a very real potential for issues to increase, consigning many communities to a future of ”Digital Deprivation”.
The widening ‘Digital Divide’
The first lockdown in the UK saw almost half of UK workers work from home, completely turning millions of people’s daily routines upside-down. This huge shift has accelerated the adoption of communication technology across the whole of society,
In particular, business, industry and government institutions have been at the forefront in embracing new digital technologies. Indeed, the advantages and efficiencies available from utilising IoT and 5G technology have been grasped with both hands by many. For example, telemedicine has been a key beneficiary of such advancements, utilising IoT to provide comprehensive healthcare to patients while in their homes.
Additionally, the adoption of new tech that requires digital connectivity in 9-5 jobs also continues to increase. Yet according to Ofcom, there are still 600,000 properties unable to access decent broadband speeds via a fixed line, which means speeds of only 10Mbps or often far less. This prohibits consumers, workers and business owners alike from performing even the most basic of tasks online, let alone being able to take advantage of or access what the latest advancements in technology have to offer.
As the cost of living crisis deepens and wider economic conditions continue to look fraught, such disparity when it comes to digital connectivity will have significant long term consequences. In rural communities this is even more pertinent, as reliable broadband connectivity is all too often overlooked, leaving people and communities digitally isolated. This digital exclusion is a new type of social deprivation which is increasingly arising along existing lines of inequality and poverty, and this divide is only set to widen further as the world goes ever more online.
Investing in a digital future
It is absolutely crucial that areas and communities that are the most digitally deprived see not only continued but significantly enhanced levels of digital investment. The moral and economic arguments for this are clear.
Firstly, with our increased reliance on digital connectivity, those that are digitally isolated inevitably suffer from a range of disparities ranging from limited employment and education outcomes to reduced access to essential services. Secondly, improved digital connectivity will not only help such individuals but also drive further economic growth in digitally deprived areas. Latest research highlights that investing in digital transformation has the potential to boost the UK economy by £232 billion by 2040.
For rural areas, many which have been deprived of such investment in digital infrastructure, the impact would be revolutionary and much needed as they look to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic. Digitising the economy in these areas is an important first step. Just to highlight one sector as a telling example, the National Farming Union has consistently highlighted the impact of a lack of digital connectivity on their members which so often are at the heart of their communities. Most recently they revealed 30% of their membership had broadband speeds of less than 2Mbps and only 38% had speeds that were sufficient for the needs of their business. The impact of improved digital connectivity for farming businesses would be transformational as it would be for the areas they operate in.
Additionally, investment that looks to improve digital skills in rural areas is vital. Without this, even with adequate digital investment, the current disparity will remain, putting individuals who are ill-equipped to use new technologies at a disadvantage. Therefore in order to navigate this transition, digital skills and connectivity need to be at the forefront of post-COVID recovery plans in the UK. This will not only raise national productivity but will also improve the lives of millions of households at risk of being left behind in the digital age.
Delivering on the ‘Levelling Up’ Agenda
We’ve seen strong rhetoric from the Government regarding its ‘Levelling Up’ Agenda, but as we exit the pandemic it’s vital we see this followed up with equally strong action. Digital connectivity has to be the first port of call and while the Government has been setting up various programmes to connect rural communities with fibre broadband coverage, this is inevitably a lengthy process, with more difficult areas taking far longer than others.
Progress is simply not moving fast enough and even under the auspices of Government programs, all too often rural businesses and homeowners are still expected to foot costs in the thousands of pounds if they want access to fibre based services. The current state of play is leaving far too many on the wrong side of the digital divide and it’s crucial both Government and industry up the ante.
The current fibre-centric approach to improving digital connectivity is proving too costly and too time-consuming for those most in need. We clearly need to move away from the current ‘one size fits all’ approach that is failing the most disadvantaged. Instead, Government must look to further encourage the deployment of alternative broadband solutions and work with a wider range of providers. 4G can immediately and cost-effectively provide an important baseline of broadband coverage in areas where fibre installation is proving difficult, and in the future we’ll see the same areas turbo-charged through the introduction of 5G broadband solutions.
A collaborative approach not only between Government and industry but also within the industry itself is the only way we’ll avert the threat of ‘Digital Deprivation’. If we are to see every corner of the UK reach its economic potential and recover from the pandemic, everyone will have to play their part.