I’ve split my problems and opportunities into two categories, based on research of key factors around the digital divide in the UK.
It’s estimated that 700,000 young people do not have adequate access or training to use devices at home (Nominet, 2019).
3.8 million people in the UK remain entirely offline (Lloyds Bank, 2020).
It’s estimated that there are 40 million unused devices in UK homes (BBC, 2019).
Donating equipment as a business is currently tax deductible. Making this a similar, short-term scheme for individuals would maximise recycling of unused devices in each household – for example, providing a £20 incentive per device donation.
Donations of equipment is currently fielded through several different organisations, from DevicesDotNow to the BBC to private charities to schools themselves. Re-organising this through local councils would allow them to distribute to a variety of organisations in need: not only schools, but also housing associations and refugee centres, for example. All of the individuals served by these organisations are proven to be less likely to be online and to suffer financially, in earnings and employability (Lloyds Bank, 2020).
Longer-term, a consistent donation scheme, in addition to central government funding, should be used to ensure the most vulnerable and least digitally accessible are not further disadvantaged through digital illiteracy. This could be funded through a digital services contribution by large companies, increasing their social responsibility and promoting their brand. This happens somewhat already (above), but should be centralised. My suggestion is through councils, as disadvantaged groups lie not only in schools, but also housing associations, refugee centres etc..
Additionally, the environmental impact of re-distributing these devices would be staggering. Manufacturing a laptop is estimated to emit 227kg-270kg of CO2 (phys.org, 2011). Let’s say 50% of unused devices in the UK are laptops, so 20 million devices. Taking the lower end of CO2 emissions per device at 227kg, that’s 4.54 billion kg CO2 wasted from laptops that are unused.
12% of people previously state they didn’t have internet access at home as they were able to access elsewhere (ONS, 2018).
Many people rely on 4G as their internet connections, with approximately 26 million in the UK as pay-as-you-go customers. This was obviously problematic during lockdown, without the ability to easily top-up. Some people report that they have to choose between food and wifi in their weekly budgets (The Guardian, 2020).
143 million GB of data goes unused every month, increasing to 165 million GB during lockdown (FutureNow, 2020). Per GB, Emerge Interactive estimates 3kg of CO2 is emitted. Therefore during lockdown the UK was wasting 495,000,000kg CO2 every month.
Vodafone Netherlands ran a scheme to donate excess gigabytes of data each month to people in need, redistributing through foundations and charities. This was an opt-in scheme. By pushing through policy to make re-donation of unused gigabytes mandatory for telecom providers through digital literacy/local charities, this data be redistributed to those in need. Penalties for providers that don’t comply makes sense, as they are still getting paid for the excess GB that is unused and don’t lose anything by donating.
Zero-rating (providing free access) essential websites would mean those people that access essential services (Money Advice Service or Universal Credit), don’t need paid services. These sites should be zero-rated now and forever, with on-going additions to keep this up to date. An example is O2, who did this for 20 essential websites over lockdown.
A longer-term infrastructure solution, based on that of Singapore, should be collaborated through the government and multiple private providers (preferably not Conservative donors) to redistribute localised internet access in disadvantaged areas. There is a key divide in access geographically across the UK that could additionally be bridged with this solution (Lloyds Bank, 2020).
2. Digital literacy
~9 million people in the UK are unable to use the internet and their device by themselves and 11.7 million do not have the digital skills they need for everyday life. Disadvantaged groups (such as those in poverty, disabled and elderly) are most likely not to be online. Intersectional groups are not measured. These groups are more likely to pay higher prices for their utilities and less likely to save money and be financially aware (Lloyds Bank, 2020).
Providing digital skills to 100% of the UK population would allow many more people to access essential information and benefits, and could also contribute over £14 billion annually to the UK economy (CEBR, 2015). The Good Foundation’s Blueprint for 100% Digitally Included UK (2020) states that a central government investment of £130 million is needed, which would theoretically provide a return of 107x investment.
One study showed that one-to-one coaching on digital literacy is an effective approach (CCHPR, 2019). Benefits included simple tasks such as setting up an email address and navigating digital banking. In the case of this study, results included reduced debts and reaching interview stages in job applications.
A number of skills toolkits already exist, all accessed online: DfE Skills Toolkit (online), FutureDotNow (online), and Tech Talent Charter (online). A pattern emerges: the most disadvantaged people are offline, and remain without the skills to get online, to access the tools that they need to enable them to be effective online.
People who don’t use the internet are more likely to feel isolated from others (ActiveAge, 2010). “Older adults are exceptionally suited to meet these needs [of younger people] … because they welcome meaningful, productive activity and engagement” (Carstensen/Stanford, 2016). I propose mandatory volunteering be incorporated into IT curriculums, combined with Citizenship curriculums and including training and delivering the enablement. Reaching out to disadvantaged groups such as the elderly through local charities and associations, using resources that are free and available, would digitally enable a large number of people in a short period of time. Additionally, it would increase undervalued soft skills young people are often lacking, such as presenting and delivering with confidence – something that private schools typically excel at over state schools.