Boris Johnson’s campaign pledge to roll out full fibre broadband by 2025 is good news for ending the digital divide. The slowly revolving pizza wheel of doom is driving people wild with frustration. But more even more frustrated are those shut out of the digital world due to skills, confidence and resources. While Johnson has a bold ambition for connectivity, action is also needed on inclusion to ensure no one is denied access to the digital world.
Fast internet connection is – as the leading Conservative leadership candidate says – an indispensable tool of modern life. Rolling out full fibre broadband quickly only scratches the surface of the solutions needed to bridge the digital divide. We must not conflate connectivity of an area with the digital inclusion of its people. The digital divide goes deeper than the fibre optic cables running under our streets. For those people who are most socially excluded, the digital divide is exacerbating the centuries old social inequality in our communities.
Poor broadband connection means your access to the internet is a poor quality experience. If you lack the skills and confidence to use the internet you are excluded entirely from the digital world. This is holding back economic growth and stalling social inclusion in Britain today.
According to the latest Ofcom data, 13 per cent of adults do not use the internet; this is unchanged since 2014. What’s more, there is a deep divide between those who have the digital skills and confidence to benefit fully, and those who do not. The Ofcom data shows an alarming 17 per cent gap in internet use between adults in high and low socio-economic groups. Last year, Good Things Foundation and the Centre for Economics and Business Research estimated that, at current rates of progress, by 2028 there will still be nearly seven million people without basic digital skills. In a world where we increasingly rely on digital in all areas of our lives, this is far too slow.
Not once in his Telegraph piece announcing his “ending the digital divide” pledge does Johnson mention the skills and resources needed to participate in, and benefit from, the online world. As his new supporter, Matt Hancock, knows from his time as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, we need to do more to engage and support those who are offline to use digital technology and the internet to help them improve their lives. The roll-out of full fibre broadband must be achieved in conjunction with a commitment to free digital skills provision and a consideration of how to make connectivity affordable to really end the digital divide.
To make the most of increasing connectivity, essential digital skills support must be provided to everyone who needs it. This also means helping people develop the confidence and resilience to get the most from digital both now and into the future. We need to ensure that current and future government policy on adult skills and training supports both essential digital skills, and an inclusive and effective offer that engages those facing social exclusion who are furthest from informal and formal education provision.
The challenge of the digital divide is bound up with poverty too. This year’s Ofcom data tell us that 15 per cent of non-users of the internet cite cost as the main reason they are not online. Boris Johnson speaks of closing the opportunity gap, so we must do everything we can to offer the opportunity that connectivity brings to everyone. No one should be left behind because they can’t afford to access the internet.
Connectivity needs to be made affordable to make sure that no one is denied access. Both government and the private sector are active in increasing access to the internet, but the time is right for a more ambitious approach.
There is a social and moral imperative for the next Prime Minister – whether Johnson or someone else – to act to ensure that everyone can be part of the digital society through digital inclusion. In a world where technology is everywhere in our lives, and something we all depend on, it is simply unacceptable that so many people – particularly those facing the greatest barriers – are being left behind.
Bridging the digital divide goes beyond connectivity through the roll-out of full fibre. That is why we at Good Things Foundation are calling for government and organisations alike to commit to our goal of a 100 per cent digitally included nation by 2028. If Johnson’s moral mission is to unite the country, then his policy proposals need to go further than infrastructure to support everyone benefitting from broadband.
Helen Milner OBE is chief executive of Good Things Foundation