Study reveals regions with most offline residents, evidencing UK’s ‘enduring digital divide’

Research has shown that more than 4m UK citizens were either lapsed or non-internet users in 2020

Following Ofcom’s announcement that 1.5m homes across the UK are still lacking internet access, new research has revealed the regions that harbour the most internet non-users.

The digital divide has been a hot topic of debate in recent years, especially in terms of its impact on inclusion and access to opportunities. Since the start of the pandemic, the issue has fallen further under the microscope due to technology’s status as a lifeline for communication and a gateway to access many vital services.

Now, a Rouge Media analysis of the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data on internet usage (April 2021) further highlights the extent of the current digital divide.

In this study, internet non-users are defined as any adult (16+) who has not used the internet in the last three months, or who has never used the internet at all.

digital divide
Image source: Rouge Media

At the local level, Luton, Bedfordshire, has the most internet non-users proportionate to its population, with the number of residents who have never been online or haven’t used the internet in the last three months rising from 6.6% in 2019 to 22.2% last year. This means that many local residents were isolated from critical internet services or communication streams at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

The percentage of residents aged 60+ in Luton is lower than the national average, which points to other social or economic factors contributing to the lack of internet usage – such as widening inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. The town’s economy has struggled with the loss of revenue from Luton Airport during the pandemic, with the council’s finance chief estimating a £70m shortfall in real terms.

Scotland’s Dumfries and Galloway comes in second with 20.9% of its population living offline last year, up from 10.3% in 2019. The region is closely followed by Powys in Wales, with 20.3% of its population living without the internet in 2020 compared to 14.4% one year prior.

Considering the data from a regional level, the digital divide is most prevalent in Northern Ireland (NI), with 11.8% of residents reporting that they haven’t been online, either in the last three months or ever before.

Despite 174,000 people in NI living offline, the region’s digital divide is closing at an encouraging rate, falling by more than 25% between 2017 and 2020. On top of this, Openreach recently announced plans to invest £100m into increasing broadband in NI, hopefully increasing internet access for residents.

The North East is the second least active online region, with 11% of residents living offline at the start of the pandemic – only 0.7% behind NI. That said, it’s thought that a November 2020 upgrade introducing super-fast broadband to the region will increase internet usage among residents.

Since 2017, the North East’s digital divide has reduced by 19%, but just 0.1% of this improvement occurred in 2019.

“It’s clear that while positive progress has been made, an enduring digital divide remains nationwide which appears to be impacting older residents and poorer households unequally” – Andy Woods, Rouge Media

Wales is third most impacted by the digital divide, with 9.8% of residents being either lapsed or internet non-users last year – down from 10.4% in 2019.

It’s no surprise that Greater London has the smallest portion of its population living offline. A major contributing factor to this could be that residents here are comparatively young, with an average age of 35.6 compared to 40.3 in the UK overall.

Almost half (46.7%) of Inner London’s population is in their early 20s to early 40s, compared to 30.9% in the rest of England, and much of this demographic would be classed as ‘young professional’. However, there are still 347,000 out of Inner London’s total 9m citizens who are currently living offline. Since 2017, the digital divide in the capital has declined by 31%.

As the portion of UK residents born before the internet decreases and the first ‘digital native’ generation reaches adulthood, the UK’s digital divide is expected to further reduce at an accelerated pace. But with various socio-economic issues remaining, there will still be residents unable to access an adequate internet connection or fully cut off from the online world – especially since the pandemic has increased inequalities between well-off and poorer households.

According to the Resolution Foundation thinktank, Brits have taken a bigger hit to household funds in the last 12 months compared to their European counterparts due to the structure of the nation’s economy and rising income inequality. This could considerably increase the number of families who are able to afford internet access and IT devices, forcing them to prioritise other vital goods and services.

“It’s been really interesting to study the UK’s digital divide and the progress being made in reducing the number of residents living offline, especially at a time when internet access has never been so important,” Andy Woods, director of Rouge Media, commented on the findings.

“It’s clear that while positive progress has been made, an enduring digital divide remains nationwide which appears to be impacting older residents and poorer households unequally.”

In other news: Lifelong learning, R&D and new research agency get mention in Queen’s speech


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