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Ending data poverty is vital as the cost of living crisis worsens

(Alamy)

3 min read

The last few years have seen our lives transformed by digital technology.

In some ways, the changes have been subtle – online bookings replacing phone calls, streaming services challenging traditional broadcast media, the slow shift from texting to instant messaging to FaceTime, and now a growing metaverse of social interaction. 

Other aspects are more pronounced. Our children’s education and teacher–parent engagement is increasingly online. Doctors’ appointments are regularly booked or held online. Finding and applying for jobs is a largely online experience. A quarter of us work from home either part or full time, connected to colleagues across the globe from our living rooms.  

Internet access turned from a want to a need. And to be locked out, means being left out

These changes, plus thousands of other small or unseen digital changes, mark a deep change in the way we conduct our day-to-day lives. And the direction of travel is clear.  

This has the potential to bring huge benefits to the United Kingdom – enabling public services reform, improving economic productivity, supporting new knowledge and innovation, and keeping us connected. But done wrong, it risks creating new and deep inequalities. 

There is significant work to be done. Ofcom estimate 1.5 million households had no data access at the start of this year. That’s 1.5 million households with worse healthcare, worse education, limited access to jobs or universal credit, and an increased likelihood of social exclusion. 8 million more – or roughly one in three – are now struggling to pay telecoms bills. 

The scale of this issue is why I founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Poverty, originally to support a campaign for low-cost social tariffs for those in need, but also to bring like-minded colleagues together with key industry voices to explore long-term solutions to data poverty. 

Over the past year, it’s been encouraging to see new or improved social tariffs offered by broadband providers, and these being promoted by the regulator Ofcom. More recently, the Labour Party has committed to measures including a universal social tariff and stronger consumer protections. 

The Data Poverty APPG recently developed a series of extra recommendations to tackle data poverty in a State of the Nation report. Underpinning these is the need for an assumed right to data, reflecting its centrality to modern life. Further recommendations include the introduction of a social inclusion fund and agreeing a digital right of way to public services. 

The pandemic accelerated our shift to becoming a digital society. As it struck, most of us – who were lucky enough – took the decision to keep our loved ones safe by forsaking the outside world. Where we could, we replaced it with an increasingly online existence. In doing this, we crossed a threshold that had long been approaching, where internet access turned from a want to a need. And to be locked out, means being left out. 

The pandemic has receded, but the digitisation it induced largely remains, and the internet continues to be vital in accessing the full benefits of state and society. Now we face a new challenge, in the form of a cost of living crisis which threatens to shunt these benefits away from the millions who need them most. 

It is too common, both in politics and society, to see data as both a luxury and a ubiquity. In truth, it’s neither. As the cost of living crisis worsens, we’re now building on our State of the Nation report by making the comprehensive case for eradicating data poverty – to ensure the whole nation can share in the benefits of the internet. 

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