Digital Inclusion

How is Digital Inclusion Defined?

Giving individuals the skills to be able to use digital devices, access the internet through fixed-line or mobile services and ensuring services are designed to be accessible to all (NHS Digital).

There are an estimated 4.8 million people in the UK who never go online at all.  In some cases this will be a choice, but in many cases this will be because of factors such as:

• Digital skills

• Access to the internet and suitable devices

• Motivation

• Confidence

Many of the people who are digitally excluded are older and vulnerable.  While there are practical drawbacks of not being online, such as paying more for goods, not having access to online support services and access to digital communication can have a profound impact on the physical and emotional well-being of these individuals.

Digital Skills

Many people will have had the experience of seeing a child pick up their parent’s iPad, unlock it and navigate to straight to CBeebies or Peppa Pig.  We are amazed at their apparent intuitive grasp of technology.  But these skills are not something humans are born with.  They are the result of circumstances, opportunity and motivation.  As well as having ready access to online service and suitable devices to use, many children are highly motivated to overcome the learning curve with technology because the benefits to them (being able to access games or other media) is worth the effort of learning new digital skills.  The most common reason given for not having an internet connection is a perceived lack of need (64%), followed by a lack of skills (20%).  A lack of inclination is particularly prevalent in older age groups, with 84% of over 60’s saying that nothing could help them get online.   Demonstrating that the benefits of Digital (such as paying less for goods and services) outweigh the negatives is a key challenge for all providers of online services.

Digital Skills Framework

The Tech Partnership Basic Digital Skills framework describes five basic digital skills that can be used to measure digital inclusion. These are:

• managing information: using a search engine to look for information

• communicating: sending a personal message via email or online messaging service

• transacting: buying items or services from a website

• problem solving: verifying sources of information online or solving a problem using online help.

• creating: completing online application forms including personal details

To be considered to have a digital skill, respondents need to be able to do one of the activities associated with it.  While the number of people without any digital skills is declining, in 2018 20% of people were estimated to have no or limited digital skills.  the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) estimated that 7.9 million people will still lack digital skills in 2025.

Some groups will face specific challenges in learning digital skills.  For example, 5% of the adult population (2.6 million people) do not have basic literacy skills making using the internet a particular challenge.  In 2017, 56% of adult non-users of the internet were disabled.  This figure has been declining since 2014, but still remains much higher than for non-disabled adults.  Support for these groups may come from friends, family or organisations set up to provide assistance with digital skills such as AbilityNet, The Digital Champions Network and Good Things Foundation.

How Link-ages can help

The Link-ages Communication Platform can help with communication directly by providing easy to use messaging and video calling, and indirectly by helping with the development of other digital skills.  Building confidence and engagement encourages users to interact with technology in a positive way.

Access to the Internet

In 2020 in the UK, growing up with access to relatively high-speed internet access and the opportunities that arise from it is something that many young people will take for granted.  Many support services, even those designed specifically for older and vulnerable people, are moving online and assume the user has internet access and the skills to use them.  However, the availability of internet access is far from universal.  

The likelihood of a household having an internet connection is related to household income, with 49% of households with an income of between £6,000 - £10,000 not having an internet connection.  Age is also a factor, with 41% of lone households with an adult aged of 65 not having an internet connection (ONS “Exploring the UK’s Digital Divide").  For those that do have access many are restricted to pay-as-you-go services because of poor credit ratings or uncertainty over finances. These services often have limited data allowances and can work out more expensive than fixed contracts.  

Mobile Internet

Using current mobile services to provide internet access has some drawbacks.  The average household monthly broadband data usage in the UK is currently 315GB per month, far more than the typical data allowance on a mobile contract.  Many modern devices, such as computers, smartphones and tablets, assume an ‘always on’ and unlimited data connection so that they can download and install security updates as they become available.  A typical 5GB per month mobile data allowance, if used as the sole means of internet access, could be used just keeping devices up to date.  Mobile data speeds and coverage is still highly variable depending on location, time of day and the number of concurrent users in each area.  While 91% of the UK’s land area has good 4G coverage, in many rural locations this may only be provided by one operator.  The Shared Rural Network scheme has been set up with the aim of delivering good 4G coverage to 95% of the country by 2025, and next-generation 5G services will eventually provide greater speed and capacity.  But for now, the majority of people will get a more consistent and better value internet service using fixed-line broadband.

Broadband Services

Availability of broadband services is improving but not universal.  According to the latest Ofcom report, 95% of UK properties can access superfast (greater than 30Mbit/s) services and 99.5% of properties can access decent (greater than 10Mbit/s) services.  This mean that 155,000 properties are unable to get decent broadband, down from 677,000 the previous year.  Many of these properties are in rural locations and the improvement has largely been down to increased use of mobile services.

Link-ages has been, and continues to be, involved in the promotion of connectivity in retirement complexes and other facilities aimed at older adults, to enable digital use, and break free from negative assumptions of digital naivety.

To benefit from connected services, internet access alone is not enough.  An internet-connected device and the knowledge of how to use it are required.  Most people will immediately think of computers, tablet devices and smartphones and many homes will possess multiple devices.  Increasingly, smart speakers, internet-connected TVs and electronic reading devices are also gateways to online services.  In 2020, the average UK home has over 10 connected devices, an increase of 26% since 2017.  

In Summary

There are many excellent ways for individuals to get online, but financial barriers and a lack of knowledge about which services and devices are right for them are a hindrance. We believe that facilitating and enabling effective and safe digital use for all requires the involvement of hardware and software providers, coupled with effective partnerships with service providers and a recognition that internet accessibility is vital.  

The Covid-19 crisis has served to highlight the importance of connectivity for disadvantaged young people and their education, and has shown how a lack of digital connection is a barrier to communication for those that cannot leave their homes. However, if connectivity issues can be resolved, software such as Link-ages can enable nearly everyone to benefit from the digital world in a safe way, providing much needed connection and teaching valuable skills.

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