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Thu, 9 April 2020

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The Coronavirus pandemic will shape the nature of our longer term digital future

The Coronavirus pandemic will shape the nature of our longer term digital future

Digital is the enabler for both social distancing and self-isolation, says Chi Onwurah MP.

4 min read

The Coronavirus pandemic will shape the nature of our longer term digital future. Ultimately, the only way to protect our digital citizens in the long run is to deliver on digital rights in a digital charter

Over the weekend we have all been trying to understand what ‘flattening the curve’ means in practice. We have been warned that it will impact every aspect of our lives. Many of those impacts – self-isolation, working from home, social distancing – have a huge digital reverberation and those on the wrong side of the digital divide will suffer most. 

Digital is the enabler for both social distancing and self-isolation. Home workers need broadband to work. Physical self-isolation needs to be balanced with virtual social contact – loneliness kills. School children need to continue to learn and we all need to be occupied and entertained. As Shadow Digital Minister and a professional telecoms engineer I have long argued that Government needs to do more to ensure a speedier and fairer transition to a digital society. Now this is a matter of public health and I have written to the Secretary of State to ask he look urgently at the following:

Capacity of UK telecommunications networks

Network capacity – or dimensioning – drives digital infrastructure design. But our networks have not been designed for the traffic patterns delaying the spread of the virus requires. Working from home is different from binging on The Crown when you get home in the evening. It is at a different time of the day and week and places different technical demands on the network.

At the same time there will be further demand for network connectivity from people self-isolating and in need of entertainment and social contact, businesses desperate to maintain economic activity online and local and national government using the internet as a primary means of getting essential information to citizens. 

A number of internet service providers have publicly said there will be minimal impacts on broadband performance, but this is an unparalleled situation and our networks have never before been tested like this. The Government needs to ensure the telecoms operators prioritise network capacity assessment and maintenance. Ofcom should immediately model the implications of nationwide network capacity stress and failure as the result of new Covid-19 usage patterns – and have a plan in place should it look possible that parts of the network might fail.

Digital skills

We will be faced with an unprecedented number of older people and those with health conditions self-isolating and feeling cut off from the outside world. Whilst there are many confident silver surfers, these are groups with particularly low levels of digital skills. Four months of isolation could have a profound effect on their physical and mental health.

Unfortunately, the Government has been happy to leave the closing of the digital divide to the market: 11 million adults lack one or more basic digital skills, and 10% of households do not have internet access. I fear that too many in the tech sector, and some in Government, have basically assumed that this is a problem which will go away as older people die.  Clearly this has to now change. 

Digital platforms such as Google and Facebook and large organisations such as Barclays and Vodafone have programmes to deliver digital skills but this upsurge in demand needs to be co-ordinated by Government and supported by local authorities with the networks of voluntary organisations able to reach out to people in a trusted relationship. 

We also need to ensure people are vigilant to potential cyber scams using the coronavirus as a ruse, and that fake news on Covid19 is rapidly taken down. The Government must increase resources for the NHS’s cyber security protocols and demonstrate what strategies it has in place to prevent a crippling cyberattack at this crucial time.

Digital Economy Support

As people stay at home they will naturally rely more on the digital economy for everything from toilet paper to entertainment. We need to protect digital economy workers, many of whom are in low paid and insecure work. They need to have improved working conditions and rights immediately. 

There have already been examples of price gauging and what in war would be called racketeering. Government need to crack down on this. But there is also concern that some of the ‘free’ services available – from Google Classroom to Facebook Messenger to Freemium games will grab the chance to further establish their market dominance. Government needs to give regulators greater remit to protect customers in what is effectively a  digital state of emergency. 

The Coronavirus pandemic will shape the nature of our longer term digital future. It is both a challenge and an opportunity to build our digital society in the interests of everyone, and prevent the digital giants taking a deeper control of all our lives.  Ultimately, the only way to protect our digital citizens in the long run is to deliver on digital rights in a digital charter. 

 

Chi Onwurah is Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central.

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