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Bridging the digital divide is now a matter of solving the wealth gap

Ahmed Essam, Chief Executive | Vodafone UK

3 min read Partner content

From completing the weekly online food order, attending online lessons and video-calling with isolated grandparents during the pandemic; to accessing public services such as claiming universal credit, or more recently ordering lateral flow test kits and completing the census, digital connectivity and skills have become an increasingly essential part of participating in society. It is now abundantly clear that for most of us being online is no longer a luxury but a necessity.

For those of us who are comfortable with operating in an online world, and who have the devices and the internet we need to do so, it can easily look as if the same is true of everyone. Those who face digital exclusion in whatever form are easy to miss - and easy to miss out. The digital divide is fast becoming a critical issue of social inequality.

The so-called “digital divide” has often been understood as something that affects older people who grew up in a pre-digital world, or those who live in places with poor internet connections. But there is much more to it than that. There are multiple digital divides that exist, covering access to the internet, software and devices, and digital skills and confidence. Within each of these, there is an economic disparity where those in poorer households are more likely to be digitally excluded. 

That means that the digital divide is a social mobility issue too. New research carried out on behalf of Vodafone UK shows that for some purposes, digital literacy is as important as reading and writing, and those who are most economically and socially disadvantaged are most likely to describe their digital skills ability as basic. Our polling found that two fifths of people said that they would benefit from digital skills training. This was almost twice as high for those who are unemployed, making it much more difficult for those in poorer households to seek job opportunities. 

Equally worryingly, just under a third of people had to share a device (such as a laptop, tablet or PC) for work, education or leisure in the past year. This means children waiting for a parent to finish their work before they can start their homework, or vice versa. This can have a devastating impact on productivity and attainment for those who are already disadvantaged, meaning that their work and education were affected far more severely by lockdown than that of those with easy access to the devices they need.

Children in less well-off households are at particular risk of being left behind. The stereotype of today’s young people being “digital natives” has some truth to it, but it misses those who do not have the tools or means to participate, and whose education and life chances are being set back.

In the long term, this isn’t just a problem for them; it’s a problem for the economy. The Government’s own findings show that nine in 10 employees will need to upskill by 2030 in order to fill the jobs society will need by then.

Ultimately, solving the digital divide is an issue of fairness. Vodafone believes that access to technology and connectivity is as vital in today’s world as household necessities, which is why we recently announced a commitment to connect one million people by the end of 2022. 

But Government needs to act too. That is why we are calling on them to gather data on those who are digitally excluded and to create a new cross-departmental task force to work together and set goals on how to tackle the issue. This should include establishing a voucher scheme for data and devices for those most in need, to ensure that those most vulnerable in society do not face digital exclusion.

If digital connections, devices and skills are essential to participate in today’s society, then we all have a part to play in closing the digital divides that exclude too many people from it.

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