Turning on the tap

TechUK president Jacqueline de Rojas on the UK’s internet connectivity drought and how what local government can do to improve the situation in their areas.

The race and desperation to enable internet connectivity has produced some inventive examples of innovative action across the UK. From radio transmitters strapped to 14th century cathedrals, to villagers in Lancashire digging their own superfast broadband cables, some Brits have taken rather extreme measures to get themselves online. This shines a light on the dependency and power of internet dependency whilst also highlighting the issue of the digitally excluded.

Except whilst it is admirable that the diocese of Bath and Wells took it upon themselves to provide internet to their local parishes, most of us would agree that churches’ role in our society shouldn’t be ensuring a minimum level of connectivity in rural areas. 

Despite these amusing examples, Britain’s digital drought is far from a joke. The online world has become the lifeblood of our society, providing essential access to jobs, public services and resources to citizens. And whether through living in an area without broadband or not having the necessary digital skills– those who unable to operate online are excluded from the innumerable opportunities that the internet provides and face a hidden poverty.

The cost of being disconnected

The Internet is crucial to the future of the British economy. Globally over the past five years, the Internet accounted for 21 per cent of GDP growth in mature economies. And with the rise in new technologies, like the Internet of Things, and the predicted growth in the e-commerce market, especially with the European Single Digital Market on the horizon, connectivity will be ever more crucial to businesses.

And companies know this. Recently, trade associations who represent over 14,000 small businesses in South West England vented their frustration at Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) for being left out of a crucial meeting that could determine the future of Broadband Delivery UK in Devon and Somerset.

In rural areas, where internet connections often remain poor such decision can have a massive impact on a company’s business. Inclusion in decisions relating to their future connectivity is important to businesses, to ensure that the measures taken are ones that will stimulate both their own company’s growth and also that of the community.

But connectivity isn’t just important in the office. Technology has enabled massive shifts in work culture, through enabling flexible working opportunities. A recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) in partnership with supplier Citrix found that there’s a demand from employees in the UK to work more flexibly, with 94 per cent of UK knowledge workers claiming they’d opt to work from home two days per working week if possible.

If people were universally able to take advantage of flexible working, we’d see savings in commuter costs of £3.8bn, with a further reduction of 533m hours spent travelling to and from work annually (increasing these savings to £7.1bn when the commuter value of time is taken into account). This would result in a significantly improved work-life balance as well as considerable financial gain for individuals.

However, such options are only possible if the connection at home or in the local area is such that people can ensure that they will be able to work remotely and have the necessary resources and infrastructure at hand. In areas with poor connection, people are excluded from these opportunities for both savings and an increased work life balance.

Bringing it all home

I believe the value of connectivity is not just for businesses or its employees. One ONS study found that in 2014, 4 million British households were without internet access, with 12% stating that it was because equipment and access costs being high.

One group especially affected by this are the unemployed. Online applications are frequently required of those on the job seekers allowance for them to receive their payments, let alone essential in helping them find a job itself. Those without internet at home struggle, especially as the 6,000 computer terminals in the jobcentres don’t come near to covering the 791,200 claimants.

But it’s also about giving people a proper chance before they even get to that point. Children are especially affected by digital poverty due to the effect that it has on their education.

A report released by the Children’s Commission on Poverty in 2014 found that nearly a third of the children surveyed in “not well off” families reported falling behind at school due to their family not being able to afford a computer or internet facilities at home, which they needed to complete their homework. Children in this situation are left at a clear disadvantage to their peers who are not only able to complete their homework, but also developing crucial digital skills which are increasingly cited as essential on the job market.

Supporting connectivity, enabling communities

Local government organisations have an important role to play in ensuring that Britain’s digital drought doesn’t plight their area. While the Government’s ‘UK Digital Inclusion Charter’ and initiatives like dot.everyone will hopefully make great changes on a country-wide scale, it is important for local governments and councils to look at their communities and see what they can do to ensure that digital poverty doesn’t persist.

This means ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to get themselves online – whether it’s for their business, their homework, to access critical public services or just to get the best home energy deals.

There’s no quick fix or single answer that will enable the whole of the UK to get online and harness the advantages that it brings. For some areas this may mean supplying more connected computers and/or devices which people can use; for others it may mean deploying open WiFi in the town so that even those who can’t afford their own connection at home aren’t completely excluded; or for others it may be working with digital skills charities to ensure that the 21 per cent of Brits who lack the basic digital skills can truly harness its opportunities.

Ending Britain’s digital drought is essential to our economy and society. Whether at a central or local government level, it’s important that ensuring that the whole of the UK is connected and digitally literate remains an important and unwavering goal. Why? Because we will all see the benefits.

Jacqueline de Rojas is area vice president of Northern Europe at Citrix and techUK president

Colin Marrs

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