How the UK’s digital divide is causing connectivity issues

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Since the start of social distancing in the UK early last year, most previously in-person activities have been carried out – to some capacity – in digital spaces. This shift online has alleviated some of the disappointment and lack of social interaction that has accompanied coronavirus, however it has also alienated those – mainly the elderly and poor – who do not have access to or knowledge of how to use the internet’s many platforms. While technology is a broad buzzword often associated with the near and distant future, this pandemic has revealed the gaps between those who have access to online spaces and those who do not. For many, having wi-fi in this time has become a life or death situation. 

Towards the beginning of the initial lockdown in April 2020, The Guardian reported that there are 1.9 million households in the UK without internet access. Additionally, tens of millions of people depend on pay-as-you-go services for daily needs such as making phone calls or accessing healthcare and education portals. Although, due to the increase in internet usage during lockdown, many who previously relied on topping-up their phones are unable to meet the new demands of their data needs for themselves as well as their families. 

Researchers Hannah Holmes and Dr Gemma Burgess of the University of Cambridge note that this growing need for wi-fi has become too expensive for some. One school teacher from Manchester that the pair interviewed mentioned that he “was talking to one family on Friday, when I was delivering free meals, and I did take them a paper pack of work, because Mum said it was pay the wi-fi or feed the children this month. Sometimes people simply can’t afford to pay for wi-fi.” As demonstrated by this quote, the impact of the digital divide has been felt heavily as well by children whose families are unable to provide these resources on top of other bills. As learning continues to ebb and flow from the physical to the online, students are falling behind and missing out on crucial segments of their education due to circumstances largely out of their control. 

In response to these dire situations faced by some in the UK, the government has supported various initiatives in order to remedy digital exclusion across all demographics. DevicesDotNow, for instance, is a group that currently provides over 10,000 individuals with devices, connectivity and support by encouraging businesses and individuals to donate technology to those in need. The Good Things Foundation is another charity that offers support to those who are socially excluded by improving their lives through digital assistance and access. The chief executive of the organisation, Helen Milner, noted that “pay-as-you-go customers without the means to buy data are finding themselves shut in their homes, facing social isolation with no means of communicating with the outside world.” By donating preloved devices or time to these groups as well as others, you can help bridge this harrowing gap and connect those experiencing a heightened degree of lockdown loneliness to the support that they require.

Though wi-fi is a given for many, this pandemic has revealed that it is scarce for those who perhaps require connection the most. 

Emma O’Regan-Reidy

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