The UK has always had a significant Digital Divide – but COVID-19 has widened it dramatically. It has increased the pace of an already present trend, further restricted social mobility and reduced fair access to education and learning. As we’ve been forced to accelerate even faster into a world where digital skills and access determine prospects far more than traditional ‘hard’ skills and where traditional workforce management styles have been foreclosed, fair access to exceptional connectivity has never been more important.
Both employers and employees now expect to work flexibly: Why live in a crowed city when the office can come to you? Why spend time on cramped commuter trains when you can spend longer with the kids? Why maintain expensive offices when you can just equip your workforce with laptops, mobiles and set them going? But what if you don’t have these skills, can’t access that technology and can’t rely on your internet connection being stable enough to support you, the kids, and your partner all at the same time?
Whilst for many the accelerated move to remote, flexible, digital working provides opportunities for a better work-life balance and progression for others it is creating greater inequality and less upward mobility. The home-working economy is rapidly changing our social fabric.
Nowhere is this inequality more apparent, and important to resolve, than with education. OfCom recently estimated that 9% of households with children don’t have access to a laptop or PC. 51% of household earning £6k – £10k don’t have internet at home, compared to 99% where earnings are over £40k. Only 25% of children eligible for free school meals or who have been adopted or in care achieved 9-5 grades in GCSE English and Maths in 2019. Affordability is a big part of this but basic availability of service is the first big hurdle. Without resolving this we risk allowing digital exclusion to become an intergeneration issue within families and facilitating social stagnation at exactly the time we need to be retrenching the economy around continued learning and skills development. A ‘job for life’ is no longer the norm as people move work more regularly in search of new opportunities, interests and progression.
Back to COVID, and government schemes have helped prop up jobs so far, but without a rebalancing of skills it’s a temporary sticking plaster. Robots build our cars; drones pick our fruits and conceivably we’ll soon see our groceries delivered autonomously rather than by a friendly workforce. The value of the associated ‘Hard’ skills are reducing across the economy, and even highly skilled jobs are changing. It might not be long before our first port of call for medical advice (after the obligatory Google search) will be machine learning algorithms. So without a substantial shift in how we provide access to work, and a uniform ability to do so, we will significantly (and acutely) hamper the prospects of the poorest in our society.
The barriers to closing this digital divide are threefold: Access to futureproofed, unequivocally reliable connectivity, cost and education. Building new fibre networks and providing uniform access to great connectivity is the large part of the answer to all of these. Ubiquitous access to these networks not only reduces the barriers and costs of accessing work and learning but helps also to reduce the cost of technology – Google’s chrome books are a great example of this with lower powered, cheaper, devices offset by leveraging cloud technology. Competitive, wholesale marketplaces, facilitated by this fibre, will ensure competition at both the service and the price level. And where even a wholesale market can’t drive the cost of connectivity down far enough for the very poorest in society, fibre networks will fuel faster mobile networks to close the gap further.
Most importantly, education is hinged on this. Our children are all taught to ‘code’ at school, but without internet access can’t refine this skill in line with their peers. Learning is no longer something just done at school or at work, but continues throughout life as we adapt, evolve and redefine our own prospects.
Poor broadband infrastructure enforces digital exclusion. Great, ubiquitous, infrastructure fuels opportunities. Building new infrastructure is the key we need to redress the ‘Digital Divide’, prove equal opportunities and relight our economy.