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The Covid-19 pandemic exposed vast inequalities that impact how we live, work and learn, including the growing digital divide: the gap between people who have adequate access to digital technologies, such as the internet and digital devices, and those in society who do not.

In the UK, the main factors influencing access to digital technologies are location, age, ability and socioeconomic status. In particular, older people and those in lower socioeconomic groups are less likely to have adequate access. Unfortunately, the factors driving digital exclusion exacerbate the disadvantages already faced in left-behind areas and by particular groups in society, further widening social inequalities.

Telecommunications companies are in a unique position to reduce the burden of digital exclusion on already marginalised groups and improve access to digital technologies for all members of British society. For example, through partnerships with third sector organisations, telecommunications companies can enable and encourage customers to donate their unused mobile data to those faced with digital exclusion.

In other countries, these companies are doing just that. In Australia, telecommunications company Optus has been facilitating data donations through its ‘Donate Your Data‘ programme since 2019. Optus partners with community organisations such as The Smith Family, KARI Foundation and Mission Australia to provide internet access to those who need it most. This programme helps recipients study, work, search and apply for jobs, and connects them with friends, family and vital services in times of crisis.

A UK programme similar to Optus’ would be a huge step in the right direction, but it is only a short-term, stop-gap solution. The Government also needs to step up and provide more sustainable alternatives and reliable access to digital technologies for marginalised groups. They cannot be left solely reliant on telecommunications companies and the generosity of those lucky enough to afford their own data plans and internet services.

Furthermore, the Government needs to work with third sector organisations and community partners to ensure that people are getting the most out of digital technologies, beyond just the opportunity to access them. Many people are still digitally excluded, lacking the digital skills essential to use the internet effectively and safely. Without these skills, access to many services is restricted, and internet users are left vulnerable to online harms such as scams and misinformation.

Even among those with internet access, 5% are not confident in using the internet, with higher levels among digitally disadvantaged groups, including 9% of people over 64 years of age and 10% of those in lower socioeconomic households. An estimated nine million people in the UK cannot access the internet or digital devices independently.

This lack of digital skills can also negatively affect a person’s quality of life with lower life expectancy, restricted access to jobs, education and government services, increased social isolation and risk of poverty, and poorer health overall. With 78% of people agreeing that the pandemic heightened their need for digital skills, it is crucial that the Government partners with community and third sector organisations to deliver skills training to left-behind groups that need it most. As an added benefit, CEBR estimates an economic benefit of £15 for every £1 invested in digital inclusion and skills training in the UK.

Last week, Optus’ parent company, Singtel, announced a new iteration of the ‘Donate Your Data’ programme that specifically targets improving the digital inclusion of elderly people in Singapore. This programme partners with NTUC Health to provide free data access to vulnerable seniors in combination with workshops provided through ‘Senior Activity Centres’ to improve digital skills and ‘empower the elderly to go digital.

Singtel’s initiative is a great leap forward in combining internet access with providing the skills training needed to get the most out of digital technologies independently, safely and effectively. It shows what can be done where there is will and cooperation between government and socially-conscious business.

Closer to home, Good Things Foundation and Virgin Media O2 recently created a programme that provides internet access to those in need through a National Databank‘. Interestingly, this initiative runs on Virgin Media O2’s donation of £12.5 million with additional data donated during a trial period when new customers purchased a plan. Programme participants receive a voucher for 15 gigabytes of data, but this is not a long-term solution that provides consistent, ongoing access. Recent efforts to support Ukrainian refugees arriving in the UK have shown other British telecommunications companies are also capable and willing to participate with Vodafone and Three also making donations.

Now, more than ever, we must encourage the expansion of similar projects that improve access to digital technologies on a long-term basis and call for implementation of digital skills training initiatives to benefit digitally disadvantaged members of British society who desperately need digital inclusion to address the inequalities deepened by the digital divide.

Geena is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Tracey Le Blanc]