How broadband providers are working to bridge the digital divide in the UK
Broadband service providers across the country are working with the UK government and Ofcom to deliver fiber to as many Britons as possible by 2026.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the digital divide in this country. As everything moved online during the various lockdowns, many people who lacked key digital skills – or even an internet connection – struggled to keep up with the change.
And while it helped connect millions of people for the first time, others were simply left behind, unable to work and socialize at home like everyone else.
Full fiber has the potential to connect more people than ever before, providing a fast and reliable way to get connected. But if it is not done well, the deployment of full fiber risks further widening the digital divide in this country. For example:
- If you live in a hard-to-reach area, providers are generally less willing to install fiber optic cables in your property.
- If you receive universal credit or some other form of financial support, many fiber optic rates are currently far too high to be worth it.
- With the move towards work, learning and living at home more often, a large digital skills gap is forming with people who had not used the internet much before the pandemic.
At Connected Britain 2021, broadband CEOs, government officials and Ofcom representatives showed how they want to bridge this digital divide as fiber optic unfolds. Everyone deserves equal access to full fiber, and we need every leading organization to help.
Find out how each of these groups will be supported as the UK upgrades its nationwide fiber optic broadband network.
This is the key factor in the rapid deployment of full fiber, as two million UK households still struggle to get a basic internet connection. Suppliers and network providers must ensure that those who live in remote areas are given equal priority for fiber optic cable installations.
Fortunately, the government’s Project Gigabit program, in partnership with many small vendors, is ensuring that equal attention is given to hard-to-reach homes. It is often more expensive to install fiber in remote locations, which is why the Gigabit project aims to donate money to various vendors to make fiber installations more cost effective.
We also learned from Openreach that the government is helping them with a “break down the barriers” plan to run their fiber optic cables in difficult places. Some local authorities and landowners are quite reluctant about the necessary construction work, so government assistance can go a long way in removing these barriers.
To help bridge the delays that some rural residents will inevitably experience in receiving full optical fiber, the government is also running a shared rural network program. This is a separate plan to provide 4G connectivity to 95% of the country, with a particular target for the very the most difficult homes to reach. 4G speeds are significantly slower than full fiber, but they are at least twice as fast as the speeds many of these properties can currently achieve.
This has so far been of great help in ensuring that rural households are not forgotten. So if you live far from an urban center, you will probably soon be reaping the benefits of full fiber.
Low income households
Another stark example of the digital divide in the UK is income inequality. A roundtable on Connected Britain highlighted the difficulties many low-income households have with broadband and other regular bills:
- Two million households struggle to pay their broadband bills
- 10% of the poorest households do not have Internet access
- 40% of unconnected people earn less than £ 15,000 per year
- 65% of the inhabitants of social housing are considered numerically excluded
These sobering statistics show just how difficult it is for millions of UK residents to afford a basic broadband plan. And because faster fiber-optic plans are often more expensive, there’s no way for lower income households to access the fast internet speeds that others take for granted.
A potential future solution could be found in the copper “cut-off” that will take place in the coming years. Currently, the cheapest broadband offerings rely on copper cables to function, whether it’s an ADSL broadband plan or a fiber connection to the cabinet. But copper is an aging technology, and integral fiber is most definitely the future.
Replacing copper with full fiber does not necessarily mean more expensive broadband. If the all The broadband network operates in full fiber, your provider will still be able to offer you the same speeds as your current copper-based plan. But you’ll have the added benefit of being able to shift to much faster gears if or when it’s convenient for you. Additionally, once the full fiber is properly established, those faster speeds should drop significantly as well.
In collaboration with the government, suppliers like CityFibre have made a special effort to install integral fiber in disadvantaged areas. And Openreach recently made a commitment to install free broadband for residents receiving universal credit.
So there are certainly efforts to connect those who haven’t had access to faster broadband speeds before. But Connected Britain’s general position was that there has to be a stronger engagement from the entire industry before it looks more equal.
Take a look at our guide to broadband offers for low income families to see what options you have if you are receiving financial support from the government.
Digital skills gap
A third equally crucial thing for providers to keep in mind is how full fiber broadband can help bridge the digital skills gap.
It’s not only about helping previously unconnected residents cope with our increasingly online society, but it’s also about improving their self-confidence.
1.5 million people got their first internet connection at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, which represented a significant increase in the number of people seeking to connect. But there are still 2.6 million Britons without an Internet connection. And since the pandemic has affected everyone, the huge increase in online activity during this period would have excluded many of these people from vital social and professional opportunities.
So, at Connected Britain, the providers explained at length how we could encourage these people to establish their first broadband connection. And all the benefits of being online in an increasingly digital world.
Increase switching confidence
Connected Britain providers have indicated their intentions to clean up and automate broadband switching where possible.
This is especially important for switching between different broadband networks, such as Openreach to Virgin Media Cable. It’s much more complicated to deal with, so vendors have to work harder to make it transparent from the customer’s point of view.
By making this process as easy and painless as possible for customers, more people can enjoy fast and consistent broadband.
Compare broadband deals in your area with Uswitch.
At Connected Britain, broadband providers discussed plans to prevent such users from having a bad experience, such as ‘automated performance monitoring’.
Some providers offer an app that can tell you exactly how your connection is going at any time of the day. It will usually tell you where a fault might be coming from if you have a problem. However, people who are very new to broadband would find it difficult to put such a service to their advantage.
So providers have started to introduce ways to monitor an individual’s home internet connection and aim to fix issues before they are even noticed by the customer. The best solution for these users is for Wi-Fi to be a constant, where they don’t even have to think it works. It’s just.
Using AI-powered, cloud-based systems, some vendors can now be your own personal remote broadband engineer. They’ll be able to notice connection issues in your home even before you do and fix them before the issue affects your online time. So while not all connection issues can be solved virtually, it certainly helps to avoid many issues that could be fixed quickly and easily.
Community-led training and support
Local councils across the country have started to introduce digital training sessions to help people connect.
So many activities are now at least partially done online, whether it’s work, your kids’ homework, socializing with friends and family, or checking your health. And people who are just getting their first broadband plan would benefit greatly from support from the first days of their connection.
The director of digital social inclusion, Adam Micklethwaite, called on the government to integrate this essential training into its digital policy.
Rather than seeing this as an afterthought for people who just logged on, he said the government needs to make the training part of their first experience. And this appropriate investment in social infrastructure, such as public centers to deliver training, will help meet the demand for digital inclusion training.
The mere distribution of second-hand devices is not always sufficient to give recipients full and complete access to the Internet. Some need the right guidance to become more productive users of their devices, whether it’s accessing useful online resources or socializing with loved ones.
For example, distance learning is definitely here to stay, especially in schools for homework and extracurricular classes. Here’s how you can help your child with distance learning.