Westminster Hall Debate: Access to broadband services, 6 September 2023

Central government should work in partnership with local government to co-design future digital inclusion policy to ensure communities are not at risk of being left behind, building on the recommendations from the LGA’s recent digital exclusion report.

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Key messages

  • Digital access and skills are essential to enabling people to fully participate in an increasingly digital society and councils play a key role in helping people to get online and learn digital skills. Central government should work in partnership with local government to co-design future digital inclusion policy to ensure communities are not at risk of being left behind, building on the recommendations from the LGA’s recent digital exclusion report
  • Councils want to go further to tackle regional inequalities in broadband infrastructure and accelerate the roll out in hard-to-reach communities. Local authority digital champions act as a central point of contact, helping to extend gigabit-capable broadband across the country as quickly as possible. We are therefore on Government to fully fund a digital champion in every local authority.
  • Councils are key to delivering digitalisation initiatives that meet the needs of their local communities. The LGA is calling on DSIT to coordinate the multiple bodies involved in the Public Switch Telephone Network switchover (digital phone switchover). Coordination and accountability will be vital to align communications messaging and ensure sectors and consumers, including the most vulnerable, are protected and prepared for the upgrade process.

Background

According to recent LGA research there has been important progress in closing the digital divide in the coverage of superfast and ‘decent’ fixed broadband. But a new digital divide has emerged in gigabit and full fibre coverage. The top 10 per cent of district/unitary local authority areas enjoy full fibre coverage of over 60 per cent, while the bottom 10 per cent have less than 10 per cent of premises able to access these services.

A substantial gap remains between rural and urban areas in terms of gigabit coverage. In September 2022, gigabit coverage was 47 per cent in predominantly rural areas, versus 79 per cent in predominantly urban areas.

Average data usage over fixed broadband lines is strongly influenced by demographics: higher in areas with a large proportion of children in the population, and lower in areas where there are more people aged 65+. The more deprived areas tend to have the lowest penetration of fixed broadband. Fixed broadband penetration is 15 percentage points lower in the most deprived areas than in the least deprived.  But the more deprived areas of England tend to use their broadband lines more heavily. Average monthly data usage is 46 per cent higher in the most deprived areas than in the least deprived areas.

Fixed broadband penetration is positively correlated with economic activity and educational attainment. Each 10 percentage point increase in fixed broadband penetration is associated with a 4 percentage point increase in the economic activity rate and about 3 points in the average Attainment 8 score at Key Stage 4.

Councils continue to play a leading role in digital connectivity, with many running the local Superfast Broadband Programme interventions, and this has built up a pool of internal expertise that has helped facilitate both roll-out and take-up. Councils are well placed to accelerate broadband roll out, however with the centralised management of Project Gigabit within Building Digital UK (BDUK) there is risk this local expertise could be lost. Given 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 rollout.

Digital champions

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology’s (DSIT) Wireless Infrastructure Strategy recognises the value of local government digital champions. The strategy identifies the role as integral to the development and implementation of a local Digital Infrastructure Strategy and says digital champions promote the social and economic benefits of improved connectivity to residents and businesses in their role.

The recent Digital Connectivity Forum report looking at the role of councils as connectivity enablers and research from Mobile UK identified funding for digital champions as a key recommendation. The LGA, Mobile UK and the Digital Connectivity Forum are now calling for the role to be fully funded to help coordinate delivery locally, recruit extra capacity and respond to surges in local roll out activity at a time when council services are under increasing pressures. Tackling the digital divide will be important to levelling up in every community and ensuring everyone has the connectivity they need to thrive.

Digital exclusion

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.

Councils play a leading role tackling digital exclusion. Council functions such as children’s services, adult social care, adult education, business support and libraries all have contact with people who may be digitally excluded, councils run initiatives to tackle digital exclusion such as digital skills improvement support and refurbish old equipment for donation or lending to residents who lack appropriate devices. Councils also have well established relationships with local VCS organisations who are an effective channel to socially excluded groups.

The LGA recently published a report looking at the role of councils tackling digital exclusion which explored the link between various types of disadvantage and the availability and usage of digital infrastructure and the role of councils tackling digital exclusion. Drawing on the research, the following key recommendations for Government were identified: the need to clarify ministerial and executive leadership on digital inclusion; creating and maintaining a new framework with national-level guidance and resources and tools that support local digital inclusion initiatives; and developing mechanisms for more effective cross-departmental coordination in tackling digital exclusion.

The recent House of Lords Digital Committee report on digital exclusion found Government has ‘no credible strategy’ on tackling digital exclusion and reinforces our own findings that there is little strategic guidance to councils from Government on closing the digital divide. Councils know their communities best and have the responsibilities, relationships, and assets to play a key role in encouraging older, vulnerable, and disadvantaged households to get online. As Government works on its response, there is an opportunity to work in partnership with local government to co-design future digital inclusion policy.

Digital phone switchover

Between now and 2025 most telephone providers will be moving their customers from old analogue landlines over to new upgraded landline services using digital technology. The new network will provide a future proof, more reliable and dependable broadband service that will support the UK for decades to come. This means services that rely on the old landline system such as home phones and healthcare devices will be switched over. The Public Switch Telephone Network switchover (digital phone switchover), will see the 1.7 million people who access technology enabled care and support at risk of being left without a connection

Councils are strong advocates for consumer protection, particularly for the most vulnerable. They are key to delivering digitalisation initiatives that meet the needs of their local communities. The LGA has continued to support the sector through the planned transfer of all analogue lines (PSTN) to digital internet-based infrastructure. We have developed a digital switchover hub and communications toolkit. While the upgrade is an industry-led process, the sector is calling on DSIT to coordinate the multiple bodies involved. Coordination and accountability will be vital to align communications messaging and ensure sectors and consumers, including the most vulnerable, are protected and prepared for the upgrade process.

Contact

Elliot Gregory, Public Affairs and Campaigns Adviser
Email: [email protected]