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Research: Pandemic narrows UK digital divide

April 28, 2021

By Colin Mann

The UK’s digital divide narrowed during the coronavirus pandemic, as people have gone online to escape the lockdown, according to research from comms regulator Ofcom.

The proportion of homes without Internet access appears to have fallen from 11 per cent in March 2020, as the UK entered lockdown, to 6 per cent of homes – around one and a half million – in March 2021.

Adults with previously limited digital skills have embraced online shopping, digital banking and video calling friends and relatives – while younger people acted as IT support, helping older or less digitally-confident friends and relatives get connected.

Despite many more people taking a leap of faith into the online world, for the 6 per cent of households who remain offline, Ofcom’s research finds that digital exclusion during lockdown is likely to be more disempowering than ever.

Groups least likely to have home Internet access are those aged 65+ (18 per cent without access), lower income households (11 per cent without access), and the most financially vulnerable (10 per cent without access). Almost half of adults who remain offline say they find the Internet too complicated (46 per cent), or it holds no interest for them (42 per cent). For others (37 per cent), a lack of equipment is a barrier.

However, most people (60 per cent) not using the Internet at home have asked someone to do something for them online in the past year. Among these ‘proxy users’, the most common need was help in buying something (57 per cent).

While nearly all children of school age had online access in the home, 4 per cent relied solely on mobile Internet access during the pandemic – with 2 per cent only able to get online using a smartphone. School-aged children from the most financially vulnerable homes (5 per cent) were more likely than those in the least financially vulnerable households (2 per cent) to have mobile-only access.

Additionally, around one in five children (17 per cent) did not have consistent access to a suitable device for their online home-learning. This increased to 27 per cent of children from households classed as most financially vulnerable.

Most children with intermittent access had to share a device to manage home-schooling. For 3 per cent of school-children, the lack of access to a device prevented them from doing any schoolwork at all.

“For many people, lockdown will leave a lasting legacy of improved online access and better digital understanding,” suggests Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s Strategy and Research Group Director. “But for a significant minority of adults and children, it’s only served to intensify the digital divide.”

“We’ll continue to work with Government and other partner organisations to promote digital literacy and ensure that people of all ages and backgrounds are empowered to share in the benefits of the Internet.”

Online activities provided a welcome distraction for many people during lockdown, with the pandemic accelerating adoption of digital services.

Additional data suggests that the time children spent watching non-broadcast content (such as streamed content or online video) on their TV set each week greatly increased last year – from 7 hours 49 minutes in 2019, to 11 hours 19 minutes in 2020 – overtaking traditional broadcast viewing for the very first time (6 hours 54 minutes).

Gaming also grew in popularity among adults. More than half of adults (62 per cent) played games on a device such as a smartphone, games console or PC, with a third of adults playing online, with or against other people.

Seven in ten 5-15 year olds played games online in 2020, with boys in particular using this as a way to connect with their friends. A quarter of pre-schoolers aged 3-4 (23 per cent) were also online gaming in 2020 – with their parents claiming that nearly half of them now own their own tablet (48 per cent) and nearly one in 20 their own smartphone (4 per cent).

With children staying home from school and leisure or sporting activities cancelled, many parents admitted finding it more difficult to control their children’s screen time during the last year. This was the case for 40 per cent of parents of 5-15 year-olds, and 30 per cent of parents of pre-schoolers.

Up to half of parents also said they had to relax their approach to their children’s online use as a result of lockdown restrictions: 45 per cent of parents of 3-4-year olds, and 50 per cent of parents of 5-15 year-olds.

But parents also recognised the value of the Internet during lockdown. More than six in 10 thought it helped their child to learn a new skill (65 per cent), while about half credited the Internet with helping their child to build or maintain friendships – an increase since 2019 (34 per cent).

Just over half of 12-15s had a negative online experience of some sort last year, higher than in 2019 (41 per cent) – and possibly as a result of children spending more time online.[6]

New analysis this year showed that children with a physical or mental condition that impacts or limits their daily lives were more likely to have had a negative interaction online (70 per cent). For example, they were more likely to be contacted online by a stranger who wanted to be their friends (45 per cent vs. 27 per cent of those without a condition), and to feel pressured to send photos or other personal information to someone (14 per cent vs. 4 per cent of children without a condition).

According to Steve Holford, CCO of rural ISP Airband, Ofcom’s report proves just how deeply the UK’s digital divide runs. “The past year has highlighted how critical high-quality broadband is, and it is simply not good enough that older people and those on lower incomes do not have access to this essential service. The same applies for those in rural and hard-to-reach areas, where broadband services have been historically poor or even non-existent, with speeds as little as 0.12Mbps. Ironically, these communities are the ones likely to benefit the most from better broadband, which would enable them to access services online, work remotely and feel more connected with family and friends.”

“High-quality, affordable broadband is a human right, and we at Airband are working round the clock to deliver exactly this to people around the country in a way that suits their budget and enables them to benefit from a more connected life. Closing the digital divide is a national priority and the government, ISPs and local authorities must work together to tackle this challenge,” he states.

“The news that 1.5 million households in the UK are still offline is a stark reminder that the digital divide is still very much present across our nation,” says Emmanuel Vella, VP, EMEA Broadband Networks at CommScope. “We now all depend on speedy and reliable broadband as a key part of our everyday lives, and its significance continues to grow, with COVID-19-related lockdowns and restrictions placing an emphasis on the internet to connect societies. And with the lines between ‘home’ and ‘office’ increasingly blurred due to the rise of remote working, having access to affordable connectivity is crucial so that local economies and communities can truly thrive.”

“In many instances enhanced broadband (up to 1 Gbps) can be delivered by either superfast fibre services or via ultra-high speed service over cable TV networks – the likes of DOCSIS 3.1 – and in some instances the next generation of 5G wireless can provide a solution. However, regardless of the delivery mechanism, it is essential that all strata of society can access the most appropriate local service, including those that may need some financial assistance in doing so.”

“It is critical that everyone across the country has the same access to the opportunities brought about by broadband connectivity, and closing the digital divide will be a vital step in facilitating the delivery of a wide range of services and applications to improve business efficiency and productivity – as well as enhancing everyday lives across all areas in the UK,” he asserts.



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