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Tackling the digital divide: Why a community-based approach is necessary

(Image credit: Image Credit: Atm2003 / Shutterstock)

The pandemic and the resulting “new normal” has highlighted that connectivity is a necessity. Having an internet connection has proved crucial for many in the UK to work from home, transition business models, stay connected with loved ones, and receive much needed deliveries from groceries to medicine. However, the perception of mass-connectivity in the UK is misguided. Over 11 million Britons do not have essential digital skills. Furthermore, more than a third of the four million people in the UK who had never used the internet are under the age of 65.

Whilst the government has set targets to deliver “gigabit-capable broadband” nationwide by 2025, a major obstacle standing in the way of true digital inclusion for the UK population is the fact that many people have never used the internet or do not own a computer. Unfortunately, the recent pandemic has heightened the struggles caused from lack of connectivity and has widened the digital divide. But how can this be addressed? Internet Service Providers (ISP) working with businesses, local authorities and boroughs to provide further guidance on how to better connect communities in the long run, is a key stepping stone.

Understanding the widening digital divide in the UK

As the fifth richest country in the world, many would assume that internet connectivity in the UK is ubiquitous, and that most households not only have an ample understanding of connected technologies but have easy access to the internet. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Covid-19 has highlighted the fact that the internet has become a modern-day necessity. With an increasing number of vital services going online, broadband poverty severely impacts how residents access education, healthcare and other fundamental amenities. A survey published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that 4 million adults in the UK have never used the internet. More than half (2.5 million) of this figure were aged 75 years and over.

Social isolation has caused many to rely heavily on their internet connection to keep in touch with relatives and give them the possibility to work from home. When it comes to needing high-speed internet for home-schooling, career pivoting, accessing healthcare, managing utilities and staying connected to loved ones, lower income families in particular are having to face difficult decisions. Whilst a number of organizations provide free digital skills training online, people need to have a firm grasp of the basics in order to participate in these. In-person assisted, and ongoing training is another key stepping stone, and impactful way of encouraging digital inclusivity longer-term.

Delivering truly future proofed connectivity

The government changed its rhetoric from calling for full fiber broadband to gigabit broadband. The apparently simple re-labelling from full fiber to gigabit broadband hides a material shift in policy. The reality is full fiber networks can deliver much faster speeds than 1 Gigabit, and whilst many are excited about 1 Gigabit services, the public will find that they will be considered insufficient and limiting in just a few years’ time. Multi-gigabit services are what is required for delivering future proofed connectivity, and to ensure that the UK does not slip behind the world in terms of broadband once again.

Unfortunately, changing the target will mean that networks that only just reach the 1GB target will be seen as acceptable recipients of subsidies and support, when in fact, they are only taking one small step towards achieving what this country truly needs in the long term. 100 percent full fiber is the only viable network technology to deliver multi-gigabit networks in an affordable way.  This is why independent ISPs are so incredibly important to help reduce the digital divide as these internet standards will not be deemed adequate.

The power on an independent internet service provider

Independent ISPs contribute to a stronger connectivity ecosystem in three ways: stronger competition, an expanded, more inclusive market and increased productivity. Thanks to the full fiber connections offered by ISPs as a collective, consumers see competition that lowers prices for the fastest, most reliable broadband available. Lower price points expand market opportunities and bridge the digital divide. Businesses need to build an affordable full fiber network for the wholesale and retail markets that can provide SMEs, low-income neighborhoods and resellers with a broadband connection that levels the playing field for business, innovation, education and every-day personal use.

By acting as ‘smart enablers’ independent ISPs boost the UK’s economic productivity by accelerating digital transformation in government and small business. Faster, reliable connections have never been more important than they are today. Connecting government and small business to cloud-based services so they can now access data remotely and on demand in today’s ‘new normal’ is crucial. Governments can build on full fiber networks to power smart cities that use data to drive efficiencies, improve the quality of public welfare and transform the way UK citizens interact with public services.

To further grow the number of premises covered even further, local authorities should use their influence to enable the industry to continue making progress. Local city authorities are usually the largest landowner in any given area, so they can lead the way in future-proofing their properties by granting wayleaves to full fiber network operators.

How communities can become better connected in the future

By providing broadband connection at a fair price ISPs offer the quickest way to digital inclusivity. If ISPs can ensure that instillation disruption is minimal, and that the work is guaranteed to future-proof buildings for many decades to come, then this facilitates agreements with large tenancy landlords and local councils. It is key ISPs consider things like the cost of their ongoing service, as well as set up and installation fees, and ensure there are no hidden extra costs as this will make inclusivity a challenge.

However, speed and price alone will not defeat the digital divide, which is why businesses need to serve their communities at a macro level as well.  An example of this is providing community centers, community hubs, and libraries in London with free Gigafast full fiber broadband.  A free high-quality connection means that both work and leisure activities can happen seamlessly for the center’s attendees.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on broadband poverty and the widening digital divide in the UK. This divide coupled with the focus on 1 Gigabit initiatives means that ISPs need to work harder to try and help communities bridge this divide. Businesses must work with landlords and local authorities to connect boroughs and council-owned properties, as there is clear evidence of the benefits that broadband providers can continue to bring to communities across the country.

ISPs must adopt an inclusive approach by offering better broadband at affordable prices to help future-proof communities now and in the future.

Graeme Oxby, CEO, Community Fibre (opens in new tab)

Graeme Oxby is the CEO of Community Fibre.