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Radical action needed to end digital exclusion

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

The Internet has empowered many to work normally during the pandemic. However vulnerable groups have come out significantly worse despite initiatives to end digital exclusion. Based on recent client work, this article explains that housing associations, local authorities and social landlords need new innovative intervention models to end digital exclusion.

The pandemic has most affected the digitally excluded

The pandemic has been a time where access to the Internet has played an important role by allowing people to learn and work from home, access local authority services, attend medical appointments and to stay in touch with friends and family.

However, internet access is not ubiquitous and those without have been restricted over the course of the pandemic. New research published by telecoms regulator Ofcom examining digital exclusion and digital literacy in the UK shows that about 1.5 million households in the UK still do not have internet access. This means that approximately 6% of homes were offline in March in 2021.

Further, groups most likely to be at risk of digital exclusion are those over the age of 65, those from lower-income DE group households and those who were most financially vulnerable.

This means that during a year in which face-to-face interactions and facilities have been restricted, those who remain digitally excluded are more likely to be disadvantaged by being offline.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are falling further behind

Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are already understood to be less likely to get good qualifications; and they are more likely to be out of education and employment as young adults.

According to the Education Policy Institute, disadvantaged pupils in England, for example, are around 18 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs.

There is a genuine concern that, compounded by the pandemic, digitally excluded children from disadvantaged backgrounds will have fallen even further behind their privileged peers and will have experienced the greatest disruption to their education.

This is because children from disadvantaged background are less able to afford good quality devices and reliable broadband connections required for a high-quality home learning experience.

Digitally excluded groups in general are also likely to lose out from a number of other benefits. Those of us that are online have a higher likelihood of being employed, a higher income potential, access to cheaper online shopping and utility services and benefit from time saved by accessing services online e.g., bill payments, job applications, passport renewals etc. Digitally excluded groups miss out on these perks.

A long-term fix is needed

Although the UK and devolved Governments have put emergency measures in place by providing 4G dongles, iPads and laptops to those in most need these are only temporary solutions – we believe that a long-term fix is needed.

Due to the high cost of 4G data, the provision of 4G dongles is not commercially sustainable over the long term. In addition, 4G data usage is usually capped limiting its usefulness.

Perhaps most importantly, 4G take up does not support or contribute to the UK Government’s ambition to rollout gigabit networks.[1] 4G networks are not gigabit capable.

Commercial ISPs have played their part too by negotiating wayleave agreements with social landlords and housing associations to provide fibre connectivity. However, being commercially led, this approach often fails to meet the affordability needs of the most disadvantaged groups.

A quick Google search will verify that a number of local authorities, social landlords and housing associations have signed wayleave agreements with commercial ISPs to provide gigabit capable connectivity to their premises.

While in principle wayleave agreements can speed up the rollout of gigabit networks, under such commercially led arrangements, the rollout of gigabit networks is likely to be confined to the most commercially attractive areas leaving the most digitally excluded groups behind.

In addition, although ISPs do offer a wide range of so called affordable ‘social tariffs’ financially disadvantaged groups will still struggle to afford these. According to Ofcom, nearly one in five (19%) UK households reported at least one affordability issue with their communications services.

We need to rethink our approach

If governments, local authorities, housing associations and social landlords are serious about ending digital exclusion and the resulting inequality, then we need to rethink our approach. Interventions based on radical and innovative commercial models – that go beyond relying on market forces and delivering stop gap fixes – are needed.

One housing association recently commissioned Intelligens Consulting to consider such a radical approach. Our client had been approached by a fibre operator with a unique commercial proposition aimed at providing gigabit capable connectivity to their tenants.

Intelligens Consulting reviewed the commercial proposal and considered its compatibility with UK Subsidy Control, competition law and procurement regulations.

Intelligens Consulting concluded the review by recommending an alternative but innovative subsidy free approach that incentivised the provision of gigabit coverage across all social housing premises and the provision of low-cost broadband to the most digitally excluded groups.

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