Tackling the digital divide - House of Commons, 4 November 2021

Digital access and skills are essential to enabling people to fully participate in an increasingly digital society. Tackling the digital divide will be crucial to addressing social and economic inequalities and levelling up every community.


Key messages

  • Digital access and skills are essential to enabling people to fully participate in an increasingly digital society. Tackling the digital divide will be crucial to addressing social and economic inequalities and levelling up every community.
  • Digital exclusion is inextricably linked to wider inequalities in society, and is more likely to be faced by those on low incomes, people over 65 and disabled people. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, only 51 per cent of households earning between £6,000 to £10,000 had home internet access, compared with 99 per cent of households with an income over £40,000. Even when poorer households had access to equipment and internet, they were less likely to have the skills to utilise it.
  • To tackle the underlying causes of digital exclusion, future strategies to tackle the digital divide must align with and reinforce wider work to improve households’ financial resilience and include a strong focus on increasing access to affordable broadband connections and devices. Social tariffs have been introduced by some providers and could be used to further expand accessibility as technologies and patterns of use evolve.
  • Councils play a key role in helping people to get online and learn digital skills. As soon as we went into lockdown, councils mobilised to provide pupils with devices and internet connections to allow them to continue their education, and worked in partnership with their local voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors to help people without digital access stay connected.
  • The COVID-19 crisis has reinforced that a good digital connection is essential. Councils recognise the importance of world class mobile and fixed line connectivity and have partnered with the telecommunications industry to extend high speed mobile and full-fibre broadband to the hardest to reach areas.
  • Councils want to go further to tackle regional inequalities in broadband infrastructure and accelerate the roll out in rural communities. With the right funding and opportunity to work in partnership with government, councils could play a far greater role targeting communities most in need, driving demand stimulation and providing digital upskilling to support the roll out. We remain committed to working with Government to help design an approach to roll out that will benefit from councils’ local expertise.
  • Addressing the digital skills gap will also be essential to equip people with the skills they need to live and work in a digital world. The LGA’s recent publication, Councils’ role in supporting the digital skills pipeline, highlights the key role councils play in supporting digital skills progression and includes case-studies of councils’ successful interventions to date. As we move forward, councils should be empowered to work innovatively with their communities, government and its agencies to design a locally determined skills and employment offer that aligns with infrastructure spend and delivers better outcomes for residents and businesses.

Background

Digital inequality

We live in an increasingly digital world, with banking, democratic functions, job applications, benefits and other public services increasingly being moved online. Digital skills, equipment and reliable digital connectivity are crucial to enable people to fully participate in society and engage in 21st century education and employment systems. Tackling the digital divide will be important to levelling up in every community, by ensuring everyone has the skills and equipment they need to thrive.

Digital exclusion is inextricably linked to wider inequalities in society and is more likely to be faced by those on low-incomes. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, only 51 per cent of households earning between £6,000 to £10,000 had home internet access, compared with 99 per cent of households with an income over £40,000. Even when poorer households had access to equipment and internet, they were then less likely to have the skills to utilise it. The heightened reliance on digital access due to the pandemic has exacerbated many of the inequalities people who are digital excluded face, from employment and education outcomes, to access to services.

Councils play an important role in helping vulnerable groups to get online, and the LGA has supported councils to build on this work through the Digital Inclusion Programme. As soon as we went into lockdown, councils mobilised to provide pupils with devices and internet connections to allow them to continue their education, and worked in partnership with their local voluntary, community, and social enterprise (VCSE) sectors to help people without digital access stay connected. The Government also delivered over a million laptops and tablets, and thousands of families have received additional data from mobile operators, following the Department of Education’s work to help children without internet access get online. Despite this progress, 1.5 million households in the UK currently only have access to a mobile internet connection at home (five per cent), including 6 per cent of all five to 15-year-olds, who have no fixed broadband access in their home.

Elderly people and disabled people are also disproportionately more likely to be digitally excluded, which presents additional barriers to accessing the services and support they need to live well. People in these groups are less likely to use the internet if they have low incomes, are older and if they live alone.  The LGA is keen to work with Government to ensure councils have the support and the resources to make all of their online services inclusive, and provide elderly and disabled people with the targeted support they need to get online.

Looking ahead, there is a risk that retirement of the public switched telephone network (PSTN) in 2025 will disproportionately impact vulnerable groups. To mitigate the impact of the switch-over to a fully digital network, we need reassurance from the sector that all customers will be moved to digital units before the 2025 cut off, to ensure vulnerable people are not left without a telephone or internet connection.

Affordable broadband connections

As digital exclusion is often caused by poverty, strategies to tackle the digital divide must align with and reinforce wider work to improve lo income households’ financial resilience and include a strong focus on increasing access to affordable broadband connections and devices.

Following OFCOM’s Connected Nations report in December 2020, several providers have introduced reduced tariffs for eligible low-income households. OFCOM found in July 2021 that 6 per cent of mobile customers struggle to afford their services, and estimate that 100,000 households do not have and are unlikely to get an internet service in the next 12 months, at least partially due to the cost of the service. OFCOM has recognised that for the customers on the lowest household incomes, engaging with the market to shop for lower tariffs may not be enough to prevent affordability problems, and they recommend that further support is needed. The use of social tariffs could be explored to further expand accessibility for those on low incomes.

In the long-term, a fair and effective national benefits system alongside a sustainable local safety net will be critical to address the root cause of digital exclusion. It is the LGA’s view that the mainstream benefits system should provide the principal safety net for all low-income households, which will allow councils to target local discretionary funding to where it is most needed. The LGA continues to work closely with the Department for Work and Pensions, councils, voluntary and community sector partners and others to press for a more sustainable local welfare safety net.

Regional disparities in digital connectivity

There are also vast regional disparities in our broadband infrastructure. Seventeen per cent of rural residential premises and 30 per cent of rural commercial premises still do not have access to superfast broadband (30 Mbit/s or higher). Analysis from the County Councils Network shows that just 21 per cent of premises in county areas have access to gigabit broadband. By comparison, London now has 70 per cent gigabit coverage, and large towns and cities in the North and the West Midlands have on average 51 per cent coverage. This needs to change if rural England is expected to seize the benefits of home working and attract high tech, high value businesses. The LGA’s recent report, Rural recognition, recovery, resilience and revitalisation, explore the economic challenges facing rural and coastal areas, with a particular focus on deprivation, and outline what steps government can take to strengthen the recovery and resilience of these communities within the current context.

With the shift to home and hybrid working, residents in these areas face a particular disadvantage in the labour market. Similarly, businesses who are unable to pivot their working models due to poor connectivity may be at risk. To truly level up communities across the country, Government must commit to continued transparency on contingency measures for those residents who are in deeply rural and hard-to-reach areas.

Accelerating the broadband roll-out

The Government previously committed to spending £5 billion to roll out gigabit broadband to all premises by 2025, bringing forward the previous target by eight years. This target was subsequently downgraded at the Autumn 2020 Spending Review, and the government now aim to deliver 85 per cent gigabit-capable coverage by 2025.  

It is positive that the Chancellor has reconfirmed funding for the £5 billion Gigabit Broadband programme at the recent Budget. However, we continue to be concerned by the Government’s intention to manage this programme centrally from Whitehall. We believe that the success of the Superfast Broadband Programme demonstrates how councils’ local knowledge and expertise can make all the difference to a well-managed roll out. Councils are well placed to act as a central contact point between government, internet service providers (ISPs) and communities. With the right funding and flexibilities, councils could play a far greater role targeting communities most in need, driving demand stimulation and providing digital upskilling to support the roll-out. We remain committed to working with Government to help design an approach to roll out that will benefit from the local expertise of councils.

Due to financial pressures, there is a risk that some councils will be forced to wind down their digital connectivity teams as they prioritise funding for other frontline services, which may undermine the success of the roll out. Long-term funding would help councils maintain and resource broadband and highway teams to support future delivery, and enable councils to support with local delivery and to spur on demand, including:

  • A £250 million contingency fund to be created for councils to support the roll out of ultrafast broadband in those areas that fall within the scope of Project Gigabit, but which are lagging behind delivery. 
  • A review of the cost cap of £3,400 for the Universal Service Obligation which gives households with poor internet access the right to demand affordable connectivity from BT. A review would help better understand the extent of premises with costs above the cap and create a mechanism for funding those excess costs identified so no one is excluded from digital connectivity because of where they live. 
  • Councils to be provided with £30 million a year to put in place local digital champions, who would support the coordination of local delivery, and recruit extra capacity within highways and planning teams. This would enable councils to effectively respond to surges in local roll out activity, such as streetworks permit requests or planning applications.

Rural mobile connectivity and the shared rural network

We welcome the Government’s commitment to provide £180 million over the next three years as part of a £500 million investment for the shared rural network, to deliver high-quality 4G mobile coverage to 95 per cent of the UK. It is now vital that mobile network operators and the Government work with local authorities to deliver this ambitious programme and ensure this investment translates into real world improvements in signal quality and data capacity for communities and businesses.

We have found that there is often a disconnect between the level of coverage mobile network operators claim to provide and the real-life experience of their residents. We are hearing from local authorities that the ongoing cost of data and higher levels of unreliability severely reduce the viability of ‘stop gap’ interim solutions. It is also evident 4G solutions may not always be effective in rural areas due to lack of coverage, which further reduces options available to communities.

Digital skills gap

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports’ ‘No Longer Optional’ report found digital skills have become near-universal requirements for employment, with digital skills now an essential entry requirement for two-thirds of occupations and these occupations accounting for 82 per cent of online job vacancies. Digital skills are also key to career progression and economic reward: job seekers with digital skills command higher salaries, and roles requiring digital skills paying 29 per cent more than those roles that do not.

Despite this, a large proportion of the population continue to lack basic digital skills: an estimated 11.7 million (22 per cent) people in the UK are without the digital skills needed for everyday life; 9 million (16 per cent) are unable to use the internet and their device by themselves; and 3.6 million (seven per cent) are almost completely offline. Basic digital literacy skills are needed by every citizen to become ‘digitally literate’ to participate fully in an increasingly digital society.

Addressing the digital skills gap will therefore be essential to equip people with the skills they need to live and work in a digital world and ensure everyone can benefit from the opportunities digital innovation and infrastructure investment can bring. Councils and combined authorities play a key role in supporting residents to improve their digital skills and in making the skills and employment system work for their areas. They have worked to leverage national funding, both from digital programmes and wider funding streams such as the Adult Education Budget, to design and commission digital skills programmes that help residents to upskill and retrain, from community level to higher level learning. The LGA’s recent publication, Councils’ role in supporting the digital skills pipeline, outlines the key role councils play in supporting local skills progression and highlights case studies of councils’ successful interventions to date.

Coordinated approach to digital investment and skills

Councils and combined authorities want to go much further in supporting their communities’ digital needs, and this will require joined-up support at all levels of government. With the right funding, flexibilities and national support, councils could do much more to align infrastructure spend with local economic development strategies and skills policy to deliver better outcomes in every community. We support calls for a new lifelong learning strategy that supports learners of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to lead more independent lives and progress in employment. This strategy should provide strategic direction, join up funding and delivery across Whitehall departments, and with local and combined authorities, and contain a key focus on digital skills.

The Levelling Up White Paper is an opportunity to set out a new baseline for devolution and empower councils to work innovatively with their communities, government and its agencies to design a locally determined skills and employment offer that delivers sustained outcomes for residents and businesses. Work Local is the LGA’s framework for making this happen, which offers significant social and fiscal benefits. A commitment from Government to back and fund Work Local pilots would see those benefits to places, people and the economy being achieved more quickly.

Contact

Megan Edwards, Public Affairs and Campaigns Advisor
megan.edwards@local.gov.uk