How can we bridge London’s digital divide?

We speak to CEO of charity Good Things Foundation Helen Milner on the tools needed to fight digital exclusion

Out of reach? Pic: By Fiona Holland

As our series has shown, access to smartphones, tablets, laptops and internet access is no longer a luxury. It is now a necessity to be able to function in modern society, for both adults and children. Digitisation of all aspects of life has accelerated during the pandemic, and as working, learning, socialising and practically every other aspect of living moves online, access to the internet has arguably become a basic human need. 

According to the charity Good Things Foundation, it is now time to recognise that internet access is as essential as electricity. It says that although the UK is the world’s leading digital nation, around nine million people struggle to use the internet. There are a multitude of reasons for the digital divide, including generational, ethnic, wealth and geographic factors. But research from the charity has found that half of households with an income of less than £10,000 have no access to the internet; showing that the digital divide is also representative of a tangible social divide between the digital haves and the have-nots.

“The pandemic didn’t invent digital exclusion, it’s just exposed and exacerbated it.”

Helen Milner

The charity partners thousands of local organisations who are already working towards digital inclusion. It provides access to free online training, and delivers devices like tablets, laptops, and mobile 4G  wireless routers and sim cards to those who need them.

Helen Milner, chief executive for Good Things Foundation, says: “I’m thinking about data poverty in the same way as food poverty. That is, something which charities and broadband companies have been working to solve, but actually we need to think what the role of government is in this?”

Digital Blueprint

Back in September the charity released a three-step blueprint for helping around 4.5 million people cross the digital divide by 2024. The plans include a four-year investment of £130m to ensure every community has a trusted site where they can get help with digital skills. “We’ve had about 1,600 community centres which have been open during lockdown and have been providing remote digital support over WhatsApp and Zoom. Normally we would have around 5000 open.” But their aim is to have a local data centre in every community in the UK, so everyone who needs help accessing digital skills can.

There is also their “Gigabit-Giveabit” scheme, where people donate their unused data at the end of a month to a mobile data bank, who then distribute it to people who cannot afford the low cost internet options. Research has shown that almost half of the public would be willing to opt into a scheme like this.

Lastly, the blueprint aims to make digital inclusion a social priority in government policy, embedded in financial, health and public services. Milner says, “The thing I would like the government to lead on is to set an ambitious target to say, ‘we as a country, should solve the digital divide by the end of this decade’, and then put in place a clearly structured plan to make that happen. Digital inclusion should be embedded in all parts of government policy.”

Milner says, “For most people you have to make sure they can get devices, have affordable connectivity and they have the skills to use it. The pandemic didn’t invent digital exclusion, it’s just exposed and exacerbated it. For those people who were digitally excluded before the pandemic, the pandemic made them more isolated and cut off.”

Universal Basic Broadband

During the pandemic, the government has realised digital inclusion should be a priority too. It made headlines with its Get Help with Technology scheme in January 2021, which aimed to enable online learning for vulnerable children between Years 3-11. One of their policies was to offer free access to mobile data with 4G routers to those with no internet, essentially offering free broadband.

This was something of a U-turn. Cast your mind back to 2019 – it was Boris Johnson’s then opposite number Jeremy Corbyn who touted a very similar proposal. Ahead of the general election, one of his flagship policies was offering free broadband to all, paid for by taxation of the big tech companies. Johnson labelled it “crackpot communism”, and it was debated on the BBC under the strapline, “Broadband Communism.” But shadow chancellor John McDonnell justified the policy by saying: “It’s about large numbers of children being able to do their homework properly and have the speed of connectivity.” Given that as many as 1.8 million children had no reliable access to the internet when they were instructed to learn from home, many people have said the country would have been better prepared for the pandemic had this policy been put into action.

But for Milner, “fixing affordable internet by itself is not going to make the revolution happen,” but it still would get rid of a significant barrier to entry for many people. 

“Our goal is to make the internet affordable for people on low-incomes and make it free for people on very low incomes”, Milner says. A policy she hopes to see in the future is universal basic broadband, which is slightly different to Corbyn’s free broadband for all. “Where every house has broadband like in the same way a house has water when you move in, and it would be free. You wouldn’t be able to stream Netflix on it. But whatever your income, you’ll be able to get online, send an email or order a repeat prescription, you know you’ll be able to do those basic services.”

Even though the government’s intervention over the last year in online learning for children has been described as too little, too late by some, it still recieved more attention than adult digital exclusion. But the Good Things Foundation says more government support is needed for the millions of digitally excluded adults.

When people are struggling to put food on the table, or pay their utility bills, they rarely have the lump sum readily available to spend on a laptop or tablet. Nor can they often afford the extra monthly outgoings for broadband, when they might have a data allowance in their phone contract that they can just about make do on.

Earlier this month the government announced its intentions to invest heavily in ultra-fast broadband to ensure it reaches all homes in the UK. This will greatly benefit those who are already connected, but without a comparable investment in tackling the main barriers to digital inclusion, the digital divide is doomed to grow even wider.

Click here to read more of the London’s Digital Divide series: #LondonsDigitalDivide.

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