Digital poverty is an ever-growing issue in the UK, disproportionally impacting the most vulnerable groups in our society. Essential services such as education, healthcare and financial assistance are increasingly digitised, and the majority of jobs require online applications. Yet, there are still groups of people who either lack the skills or the facilities to get online. If we don’t take action, we risk excluding marginalised groups even more from the fundamental resources they need to live and thrive in society.
The statistics speak for themselves: 1 in 4 children who are classed as vulnerable in the UK don’t have access to a suitable learning device, 70 per cent of households earning £17.5k or less a year only have foundational digital skills, and 10 per cent of Londoners don’t own a smartphone*. Ofcom also highlights how this severely impacts the elderly, people with limiting conditions such as visual or hearing impairment, and those not in employment, as groups most vulnerable to digital exclusion**. These groups are already at economic and social disadvantages, and digital exclusion will only serve to exacerbate the issue.
The problem requires a multi-layered approach, ensuring that the population is equipped with the skills they need to use digital technology and the internet whilst also ensuring that these platforms are accessible to all members of society. We need collaboration between the government, technology industry and educational bodies, along with the support of charitable organisations, if we are to find long-term, sustainable solutions that end digital poverty.
Cellnex UK is pleased to support some fantastic charities that do important work to promote digital inclusion. Via the UK Community Foundation, we have been able to help fund initiatives such as the Holborn Community Association’s digital arts club, which provides access to digital equipment and increases skills for children from typically low-income families, and the Step Up Hub, which provides training to refugees to help them access online services and support. We also work with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations to support charities such as CarComm, helping elderly people living in care homes to use digital devices to keep in touch with family, shop online and access media content based on their interests.
However, we cannot put the responsibility of digital inclusion solely onto the third sector and industries’ Social Value plans. The government must prioritise digital inclusion as part of its policy structure, services offerings and education curriculum. As digital infrastructure providers, organisations such as Cellnex UK and mobile network operators work to ensure reliable connectivity up and down the country, including remote rural areas and congested inner city locations. In turn, local authorities need consistent and efficient regulatory frameworks that prioritise digital services and allow for faster deployment of infrastructure in the places that need it the most.
Digital poverty won’t end overnight – it is a challenge that requires a long vision, adequate funding, realistic planning and a holistic partnership approach. It is a challenge we must work together to overcome if we want to provide fair access and opportunity to all members of our society.
Written by Claire Cranton, Head of Corporate Communications and ESG, Cellnex