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How Mobile Connectivity Can Further Narrow the Digital Divide

Mobile UK

6 min read Partner content

From banking to benefits, shopping to education, digital connectivity has fundamentally changed how the UK public accesses information, products, and services. This has opened up exciting new opportunities for many but, unfortunately, not for all. Now, an important new report from Mobile UK has highlighted the scale of the digital divide and identified practical strategies to address it.

Most of us routinely use our phones or laptops to access goods and services in our everyday lives. However, not everyone is able to enjoy the benefits of digital connectivity. A new report by Mobile UK, the trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators, seeks to further uncover the barriers that exclude people but in doing so highlights the growing role mobile connectivity is playing in this space, and the urgent need to prioritise this technology in this important public policy issue.

The report cites figures from Ofcom that show 6% of the nation’s households have no access to the internet and that 21% of UK adults only access the internet using a smartphone. Strikingly, of those that only access the internet via a mobile, a significant proportion of that are financially vulnerable (31%) and in lower socio-economic groups (29%).

The report highlights the critical role that mobile connectivity can play in closing the digital divide. This is particularly important for lower-income groups such as the estimated 1.5 million UK consumers who depend on mobile data as their only source of internet access at home.

Longstanding campaigner for improved digital access, Lord Iain McNicol, told PoliticsHome that the benefits of digital connectivity were clearly not being felt by everyone.

“The digital revolution has provided millions of people with access to information at a scale never seen before,” he tells us. “But too many people are unable to take full advantage of the benefits and opportunities it presents.”

The importance of ensuring digital technologies are available to everyone is an issue that is also high on the agendas of the nation’s MPs. Chair of the Business and Trade Committee, Darren Jones MP is one of those who welcomed the report’s focus on narrowing the digital access gap.  

“I’m pleased to see Mobile UK addressing the increasingly pervasive issue of digital exclusion in the UK,” he told PoliticsHome. “Closing the digital divide is now vital to ensuring people are able to access the full benefits of our state and society, no matter their background or circumstances.”

The report highlights some groups as being at particular risk of being left behind as services go online. People who are older, on lower incomes, jobless, living in social housing, disabled, less educated, or homeless were found to be much more likely to be digitally excluded than the rest of the population.

It is a point that resonates with Lord McNicol. “Some are digitally excluded because of their age, location, socioeconomic status, or disability,” he explains. “Others feel apprehensive because of security concerns or the risks of online harm.”

It is also an issue that has a specific impact on rural areas, where communities have often had to wait longer to enjoy the sort of digital connectivity that is routinely found in the UK’s cities and towns.

Selaine Saxby MP is the Chair of the Broadband and Digital Communication APPG. As a consistent advocate for better digital access for rural communities, Saxby welcomed the Mobile UK report in raising the profile of digital exclusion.

“If we are to increase rural productivity, we must enable equitable access to both broadband and mobile connectivity,” she told PoliticsHome. “I welcome Mobile UK’s report on the barriers we face, but also in highlighting the opportunities available if we can address this digital divide.” 

For both rural areas, where the Shared Rural Network is bringing mobile broadband to rural communities and the UK more widely, Gareth Elliott, Director of Policy and Communications for Mobile UK, is clear that the digital divide must be seen within the context of wider debates about exclusion. He tells PoliticsHome that a lack of digital access is amplifying a whole range of other inequalities and leading to poorer life outcomes.

“Our new report shows that digitally excluded groups can find it difficult to access healthcare, have a poorer educational experience, and earn less than those who regularly access online services,” he explains. “As a society, we need to make sure that digital technology reduces inequalities, rather than deepening them.”

The Mobile UK report paints a picture of digital exclusion as a complicated problem with a range of root causes that can only be addressed through coordinated action from government, businesses, and the industry.

The authors set out a range of practical steps that can be taken to address the problem. They call for clear leadership from government, the promotion of mobile-friendly websites, and the nomination of Digital Champions at a local authority level.

The UK has a strong starting point for supporting digital inclusion through mobile connectivity. Average mobile phone costs have been falling over time and the cost of mobile data in the UK remains low by international comparisons. At the same time, huge progress has been made in expanding coverage.

Despite enormous advances over the past decade, Elliott highlights the difficulties faced by the industry, which continues to provide UK customers with some of the most competitive pricing in comparison to other countries, and a growing investment gap due to flat or declining revenues and a challenging legislative and regulatory framework.

“The industry as a whole has been incredibly proactive when it comes to investing in infrastructure,” he tells PoliticsHome. “Last year alone, mobile network operators invested £2 billion to improve their networks. But a declining average revenue per user means that the Government needs to find new ways to incentivise industry investment.”

Unlocking that investment requires clarity from government to improve the business case for networks, allowing them to plan and invest. Elliott also believes that efforts to improve digital inclusivity must go hand in hand with policy that incentivises investment in the UK mobile network.

“This should never be seen as a choice between supporting investment or supporting inclusivity,” he tells us. “The two are closely linked together. We know that digitally excluded groups often access online services from their mobile handsets. Ensuring that we have the network capacity and coverage, at a price that consumers can afford, is a vital part of closing the digital access gap.”

Darren Jones would also like to see specific policies that are focused on enabling access for lower-income households.

“As digital technology continues to advance at pace, and with the cost-of-living crisis pricing more people than ever out of effective mobile connectivity, now is the time for policy changes to help those most in need get online,” he told us.

The Mobile UK report shows that the UK simply cannot afford to be left behind when it comes to digital connectivity. Demand for mobile data continues to increase, and that demand is likely to accelerate with the emergence of new technology such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and the metaverse.

“Dealing with the challenges of tomorrow demands action today,” Elliott tells us. “The right policy interventions are needed now to unlock industry investment and help close the digital access gap for everyone.”

To view the full report please click here

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