In most of the UK, we will all enjoy access to the internet – whether that is through broadband or on our mobile phones.
But there is nothing more frustrating than when we’re in a signal dead zone. Even if it feels like hours, we are usually never without signal for more than a few minutes.
In many communities in developing and developed countries, experiencing extremely long bouts without connectivity is a common occurrence. The gulf between those with regular access to the internet and those without – the ‘digital divide’ – poses significant social and economic challenges across the world.
To mark World Telecommunications and Information Society Day today, we are exploring what this ‘digital divide’ means for communities around the world and the future of technology.
What is the digital divide?
The digital divide is defined as “the gap between those who have and do not have access to computers and the internet”. The divide can be affected by a variety of factors, such as affordability, availability, equipment availability, and the uptake of digital skills.
According to the UNCHR, 93% of the world’s population lives within areas with access to mobile or internet services.
However, only 53.6% use the internet, meaning there are around 3.6 billion people that have little to no internet access. This is evident in developing countries, where necessary infrastructure development is costly and the price of being connected to the internet can reach 20% of average income.
Access to the internet is not a luxury – it’s a human right
The UN has called for universal access to the internet to be acknowledged as a human right, in a bid to recognise the challenges posed for those without access.
In an age when internet access is thought of as ubiquitous by policymakers, for those who lack internet access, it can be difficult to access vital basic public services like schools or healthcare. This was particularly true during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many children worldwide had limited internet access meaning that they missed out on their education, which is likely to lead to deep inequality.
Remote communities in both developed and developing countries may not always have access to in-person healthcare, and the advent of tele and online healthcare can resolve the issue. Connectivity and the implementation of digital health tools can also support healthcare providers to diagnose illnesses and monitor patients remotely, improving patient experiences as well as reducing the cost of care.
Closing the digital divide in the UK and beyond
The international picture demonstrates how severe an impact the digital divide is. But is the UK a utopia of internet access? Far from it.
The digital divide affects everyone, and it should be a priority for the government in the UK and internationally to ensure parity of access to vital technology for all.
Governments need to invest in the necessary infrastructure, which can provide communities with fast internet connections and reduce the gap in the digital divide.
Device availability is also another factor that can tackle the digital divide. As Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) flagged, smartphones are great enablers for digital participation, but they remain unaffordable for many around the world. A4AI is calling on governments to include targets in national broadband plans and strategies around device affordability.
Lastly, governments need to invest in improving the public’s digital skills. Skills exclusion can affect different social groups, especially elderly generations. Providing opportunities to learn digital skills can boost an individual’s productivity and bring economic benefits.
Telecommunications and Information Society Day
Telecommunications and Information Society Day is an important reminder that the digital divide is still present and widening, both internationally and in the UK. The UK Government has taken small steps, like aiming to provide gigabit-broadband to 99% of premises by 2030. But, without the skills to use it, or the devices to access it on: the digital divide will not close at the scale it needs to.
At Whitehouse Communications, our team of experts are driven to help clients navigate the complicated worlds of tech and communication policy. Your issues are our issues. We want to help your organisation deliver significant policy and regulatory changes. Whether you’re working in the UK or the EU – get in touch with us to discuss how we can help.