Mobile: Bridging the digital divide

Almost a year ago to the day I read an article which described digital exclusion as being a modern day social evil which needed to be abolished.

Although this may sound somewhat overdramatic, the fact that seven million adults – approximately 13 per cent of the population - are offline and within this group the elderly, those with disabilities and those with lower incomes and less education are all disproportionately represented, shows that digital exclusion is a significant challenge in the UK and one that deservedly continues to take up column inches and garner major attention.

You only have to look at how core the digital economy has become to the plans of most organisations. How many banks, building societies, local government services and retailers are rethinking their bricks and mortar strategies and looking to cut their internal costs and minimise their physical premises?

As these organisations continue to adopt this approach the sizeable minority of people who have been digitally excluded will inevitably face both reduced access to essential services and higher personal costs.

That’s why I feel that the ramifications of digital exclusion should in no way be underestimated, ever since the early 90’s when personal computers first became commonplace public policy experts have worried about the ill effects of a digital divide caused by unequal access to computing resources.

In fact, the issue is such a bone of contention that the government saw fit to put in place a digital inclusion strategy in the hope of getting every capable person online by 2020. The aim of the strategy was to accelerate the process of digital inclusion, so that only 8.3 million people (16 per cent of the adult population) will be offline by 2016, and 4.7 million people (less than ten per cent of the adult population) will be offline by 2020, with the ultimate goal being to “develop digital services that are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so”.

Digital skills are not only vital to the maximise economic growth and job creation, shown most prominently in the Booz and Co report of 2012 which stated that a lack of online skills was costing the UK economy £63 billion in additional GDP growth, but with research showing a clear correlation between digital and social exclusion, it’s also worth noting that those already at a disadvantage and arguably with the most to gain from the internet are the ones least likely to be making use of it.

This is where I believe that mobile comes in and is helping to address the issue of digital exclusion.

Smartphones are easy to use and technically robust and require a much lower financial commitment than a PC with fixed broadband. They are also well suited to transient individuals, those with in-home mobility challenges and are also an ideal route to internet access for ‘digitally reluctant’ individuals who may not see the point of getting a desktop or laptop device but may be prepared to go online via a device they already have.

The statistics show that the number of smartphone users has grown exponentially since 2011 when there were 21.6 million mobile users compared with the forecasted 43.4 million in 2017, in fact today over half of UK adults use a smartphone or other mobile device to get online.

Historically, programmes to support individuals in moving online typically focussed on fixed broadband solutions and skills, but in my opinion mobile is the key tool to address digital inclusion. With the internet increasingly becoming a mobile phenomenon and being accessed by mobile devices, and with the amount of web content tailored for mobile browsing inevitably on the increase, the role of mobile technology, and most eminently the smartphone, in bringing more and more people online should not be underestimated.

As the task of helping people move online becomes more challenging, it makes sense to use all tools that are at our disposal.

As tariffs and equipment costs continue to fall mobile is already price comparative with fixed broadband and is a tool well suited to addressing the issue of digital exclusion and ultimately will be the best option for an increasing number of individuals transitioning online.

Paul Swaddle is CEO of Pocket App.