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Digital poverty: 3 factors and how society can tackle it

Around 2 million UK households don’t have access to the internet and as many as 2.7 million adults haven’t used the internet in the past three months. Lack of internet access was an issue before the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has become more critical. Here’s our view of how the issue of digital poverty can be tackled. 

Those individuals who lacked solid digital skills would perhaps manage their banking in-branch before the pandemic. However, bank closures or restricted hours may have jeopardised their ability to manage their finances during what was – for many in our society – a financially taxing year.  

There are 3 main types of digital poverty: 

  • Access, which can be the result of geography 

  • Skills, including lack of education 

  • Financial poverty causing digital poverty. 

Restricted access to digital – particularly the internet – can simply be a side effect of geography. For example, if you live in the Lake District, there often isn’t 4G or 5G connectivity – although there are rural connectivity projects that are beginning to tackle that.  

Poor connectivity also occurs in economically disadvantaged metropolitan communities. There’s a strong overlap with digital poverty and financial poverty in cities, as telecoms companies are less likely to invest in advances in infrastructure in areas where people are unlikely to upgrade telecoms plans due to cost. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has begun to address this social issue by researching priority areas to intervene in, to increase data access and benefit the economy. 

Our Essential Digital Skills qualification (EDSQ) aims to tackle the lack of education around digital to relieve access issues. The EDSQ empowers learners with the knowledge of how to use the internet to use the services of supermarkets, banks, and secure deals on utilities. We designed the EDSQ to fill skills gaps and broaden internet access. We’re proud to say this post-16 qualification is eligible for funding as part of the government’s adult education budget.  

As well as poorer metropolitan areas having less access to good internet connections, financial poverty can exacerbate access to digital in other, more obvious and immediate ways. Digital technology, including smartphones, laptops, and computers, are often prohibitively expensive for many. During the first lockdowns of the pandemic, the broad assumption we made as a society was learners could simply continue their education at home on their available devices. However, as many as 9% of all families lacked the devices necessary for their children to continue their education online.  

NCFE is committed to raising awareness of what restricts access to digital. We’ll continue to use our weight to investigate causes and advance solutions, for the benefit of everyone in our society.