New report highlights regional variation in digital divide

Lancaster University research on the digital divide in the north-west found a significant proportion of people with no or limited internet access

More evidence of the UK’s digital divide has emerged this week, with research from Lancaster University think tank, the Work Foundation, finding that more than a quarter (28%) of people in the rural north-west of England lack confidence in completing key online tasks.

The issue is particularly acute for those on lower incomes or aged 65 and over, with more than half uncertain about approaching such actions as applying for a job or making an online call.

A relatively high proportion of the people surveyed had no or very limited internet access, with 20% lacking mobile broadband and 13% with poor quality or no wifi.

Financial circumstance was also an obstacle to many of the more than 500 respondents to the poll, with 19% saying that cost was a prohibitive factor.

Even among the 95% of north-west residents with access to the internet, only a quarter said they felt able to make the most of it.

“Given the seismic shift to remote and hybrid working we’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic, it is alarming that such a high proportion of the rural population still really struggle with these skills, especially older residents and low earners who are most likely to benefit from accessing digital services,” said Ben Harrison, director of the Work Foundation.

“It was also concerning to hear in our interviews that low levels of consumer confidence and technical understanding can result in people committing to costly and sub-optimal contracts, that they are then tied in to.

“For example, we heard of instances where people were tied into contracts but unable to get any reliable connectivity at home, so felt they had to take out another contract at the same time, facing huge costs.”

Read more: New scheme reveals first pledges to help breach digital divide

The north-west is also one of the poorest performing regions when it comes to closing the digital divide. In 2014, the government’s digital inclusion strategy aimed to reduce the number of people offline by 25% every two years. In the north-west, the 2017-19 reduction was only 15.4%, placing it ninth on a list of 12 UK regions.

To further bridge the divide, the study’s authors make a number of recommendations.

Regional level

  • Job websites and recruiters should work with local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and other partners to reach rural residents with low confidence in looking for jobs online
  • Local authorities should use social value investment from connectivity partnerships to target educational outreach at those facing the greatest risk of digital poverty
  • Local authorities should collaborate with third and private sectors to undertake peer-to-peer outreach to boost confidence of rural residents in accessing digital services

National level

  • Government shout raise awareness of the availability of social tariffs to universal credit claimants
  • Ofcom should require providers to fully disclose the full range of charges included within mobile or broadband packages and ensure this information reaches vulnerable consumers in clearly understandable terms
  • Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport should set out a strategy for the coordination and sharing of good practice on increasing digital confidence

“If government ambitions to level up the UK are to become a reality,” said Harrison, “clearly more needs to be done to provide people living in the rural north west with the digital skills and access they need.”

Leave a Reply

Free live webinar & QA

The digital difference - Build a culture of reading with ebooks & audiobooks

Free Education Webinar with OverDrive

Friday, June 24, 2PM London BST

In this webinar, hear from Havant Academy Librarian Joanna Parsons to learn how she uses ebooks and audiobooks to help boost reading among her secondary students.