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How is the UK doing in its efforts to shrink the Digital Gap?

More and more of our partners in the housing sector are insisting on Digital Inclusion initiatives, supporting their own efforts to enable every resident, especially in social housing, to have access to the Internet.

Telecom companies have become instrumental in shaping and delivering the digital customer experience. Often, partnering up with housing associations and local authorities is dependent on the extent of digital inclusion initiatives telecom companies will undertake and with that in mind, a an aligned digital strategy is needed across the board.

Working with UK Housing Associations throughout the country, we are very aware of the issues they and residents face when it comes to digital. I have summarised here some of the key concerns Housing Associations have, outlined the Government initiatives to shrink digital illiteracy and increase access to online services, and fundamental prerequisites to a good digital inclusion strategy.

First off, let’s focus on the Housing Associations. Often, they work on tighter budgets compared to private residential developers and even though they have their own new build delivery targets, they can sometimes be determined by the bottom line of managing existing housing stock and residents.

Just over a year ago, Aberdeen City Council undertook a research which suggested that the cost to serve residents face-to-face equates to over £7 per person as opposed to £0.32p online. Admittedly, this cost will likely vary in the different parts of the country and will also depend on the specific area socioeconomic factors.

Although this figure may be different elsewhere, the benefits of moving certain services online is certainly driving the trend we are noticing, namely that more social housing associations are proactively looking to add technology both to their existing and new build housing to facilitate management. The most common technologies we see added are various sensors to detect voids, follow humidity levels and live CCTV footage along with systems for customers to arrange repairs and pay bills directly online.

We have worked with HAs across the country to identify the most common barriers preventing people from getting online and although there are 26.6 million connected homes (Ofcom, 2019), there are still over 5 million adults who have not accessed the Internet in the past 3 months (ONS, 2019). What’s stopping them to use the Internet and benefit from the endless supply of information and opportunities then? Mainly availability, affordability and digital skills.

To reduce this number, the Government launched the Digital Inclusion Strategy in 2014 aiming to encourage and amplify efforts to bring more people online. The first step of which is making sure there is fixed broadband line and coverage availability for everyone, a world class infrastructure to support not just the current generation and our present digital consumption but the future demand. According to Ofcom, UK households consume 240GB of data each month, up a quarter since last year. We also observe this trend on our full fibre network with an average of 10% increase of data consumption each month. These facts should drive the infrastructure strategy each developer employs.

To futureproof the entire country, housebuilders must be on the same page, equipping the homes they build with connection capable of delivering adequate service in the years to come. This is one of the reasons why a lot of housebuilders are opting to install more than one network on each development. We fully support this shift and are tirelessly working to engage with more developments to deliver full fibre reliable futureproof connection.

Going back to Digital Inclusion efforts, Gov.uk has issued an informal checklist of basic steps to assist people getting online. I have summarised some of the main recommendations below:

Identify user needs and deploy resource to cover the basis. Lambeth Digital Buddies and what they are doing is a good example hre. These are people from the community giving their time to teach basic digital skills.

Allow easy access, especially to people who are economically challenged preventing them from getting online on personal computers or smartphones. Digitally forward councils such as Hackney in London provide free access to local library computers.

Promote the benefit and motivate people to get online for better self-sufficiency and connection such as keeping in touch with family and friends via Skype.

It seems like the Government, organisations and telecom providers are taking forward steps to reduce the digital gap. We are also involved in various initiatives with the developers and housing associations we work with and have already seen a difference in those communities.

All in all, I see this as a common effort and to tackle digital exclusion, we all need to work together to deliver accessible service and teach appropriate digital skills. If you’d like to get in touch, just drop me an email on gergana@grainconnect.com

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