As the government announce their new Levelling Up agenda, it’s good to see one point from the announcement aiming directly at digital connectivity. Yet there is so much more that government needs to do in its aim to “level up” before 2030, and digital access runs through many of the 12 Missions that Michael Gove has today announced in his White Paper. Investing in infrastructure is only one part of the issue – investing in people, their needs and their motivations is as – if not even more – important.

The Levelling Up agenda has been created as “a plan to transform the UK by spreading opportunity and prosperity to all parts of it”, by 2030. The great news for our community is that one of the key determinants of digital poverty is tackled through connectivity. Mission 4 sets out that there will be “nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, with 5G coverage for the majority of the population”. This is a great start, but it does only tackle one area.  In creating nationwide infrastructure, there is still a need for the government to tackle the other reasons why people are not online, and this can’t be tackled in one Mission to provide high speed internet. Affordability of broadband remains a massive barrier even where there is a service available.  But other barriers – such as having access devices, having the skills to use them, and perhaps most importantly – having the motivation to get online, are still holding people back.

According to Ofcom, as at December 2020, only 27% of homes had gigabit speed internet – and we also know from Ofcom that 1.5 million households in the UK don’t have any access for the Internet, although this is for a wide variety of reasons. Then there are far more who don’t have the access that many people would consider standard – with Nominet research showing that 6 million children lack a device or internet connection that they can use at home for their studies.

A whole host of the Missions need to have digital underpinning them, even if Ministers are yet to realise this. And we need government to realise that many people don’t have Internet access as standard – even though we would argue it is an essential.

For example, Mission 5 talks about ever increasing standards at primary schools – and this is at the very heart of what the Learning Foundation, a founder of the DPA, seeks to see. Technology supports every area of learning within schools, raising outcomes and increasing learner engagement. Without it, completing homework and accessing learning resources is impossible. Yet so many children don’t have this – and even when devices are provided, not all families have the resources to use them.

Mission 1 seeks to level up pay and employment.  But in the UK, 36% of the workforce are missing out on Essential Digital Skills for Work, and 34% of those claiming benefits have very low levels of engagement online according to 2021 research. Mission 2 talks of increased R&D – but with a third of the workforce unable to make reasonable use of digital services, how can we attain that? Mission 6 talks about driving up high quality skills training, and we need to ensure that digital skills are a key part of this Mission.

And Missions 7 and 8 address health and wellbeing. With NHS services and even GP appointments increasingly requiring online access, digital skills are essential to be able to access health provision. Assessment of whether an appointment is necessary often now runs through a web form – repeat prescriptions are handled via apps.  A huge number of us gain our knowledge about wellbeing from online sources – whether that is mental health support through to healthy living.

Of course, this is based on the announcement, and the DPA will be assessing the full White Paper.

The internet is now an essential for many of us in our every day lives. The pandemic has accelerated this – how we learn; how we gain new workplace skills; how we do our jobs; how we access health care; how we bank; how we shop; even how we report a missed bin collection or pay for a bill. Many of us do this online and we don’t even think about it.  But for many people, none of that is a possibility. And how can you imagine how much you are missing out on – knowledge, work opportunities, social interactions, even just easier ways of doing things – if you’ve never been online. Understanding the gap, realising it is real and for a huge number of people, and then addressing this – that is the challenge for government.

Take a look at the Levelling Up agenda synopsis here.

Elizabeth Anderson, Chief Operating Officer, Digital Poverty Alliance