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How broadband providers are working to close the UK’s digital divide

How broadband providers are working to close the UK’s digital divide

Broadband providers across the country are working with the UK government and Ofcom to get full fibre to as many Brits as possible by 2026.

The COVID-19 pandemic shone a harsh light on 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 to connect millions of people for the first time, others were simply left behind, unable to work and socialise from home like everyone else.

Full fibre has the potential to connect more people than ever, providing a fast, reliable way to get online. But if it’s not done right, rolling out full fibre has a risk of driving the digital divide in this country even wider. For example:

  • If you live in a hard-to-reach area, providers are usually less willing to install fibre cables at your property.
  • If you receive Universal Credit or another form of financial support, many full fibre tariffs are currently priced way too high to be worth it.
  • With the shift towards working, learning and living from home more often, a big digital skills gap is forming with people who hadn’t used the internet much before the pandemic.

phil eayres from talktalk giving a speech at connected britain

At Connected Britain 2021, broadband CEOs, government officials and Ofcom representatives showed the ways they want to close this digital divide as full fibre rolls out. Everyone deserves equal access to full fibre, and we need every leading organisation to help towards that.

Find out how each of these groups will be cared for as the UK upgrades its national broadband network to full fibre.

Hard to reach homes

This is the key factor in the rapid rollout of full fibre, because two million UK households still struggle to achieve a basic internet connection. Providers and network suppliers need to ensure those who live in remote areas are an equal priority for fibre cable installations.

Thankfully, the government’s scheme Project Gigabit, in partnership with many smaller providers, is ensuring that equal attention is paid towards hard-to-reach homes. It’s often more expensive to install fibre in remote locations, so Project Gigabit aims to give money to various providers to make fibre installations more cost-effective.

We also learned from Openreach that the government is helping them with a ‘barrier-busting’ plan to install their fibre cables in tough locations. Some local authorities and property owners are quite resistant to the building work needed for it, so government assistance can go a long way to removing those hurdles.

To help bridge the delays some rural residents will inevitably experience with receiving full fibre, the government is also running a Shared Rural Network programme. This is a separate plan to get 4G connectivity to 95% of the country, with a particular aim for the very hardest to reach homes. 4G speeds are significantly slower than full fibre, but it’s at least two times faster than the speeds many of these properties can currently get.

This has so far been a significant help in making sure rural households aren’t forgotten. So if you live far outside of an urban centre, you’re still likely to enjoy the benefits of full fibre soon.

Low-income households

Another stark example of the digital divide in the UK is income inequality. A Connected Britain panel discussion highlighted the struggles 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 don’t have internet access
  • 40% of unconnected people earn less than £15,000 a year
  • 65% of residents in social housing are considered digitally excluded

These sobering statistics show just how difficult it is for millions of UK residents to afford a basic broadband package. And since faster full fibre packages are often on the more expensive side, there’s no way for the lowest-income households to access the fast internet speeds others take for granted.

One potential forthcoming solution could be found in the copper ‘turn off’ that’ll be taking place in the next several years. Currently, the cheapest broadband deals rely on copper cables to work, whether that’s an ADSL broadband package or a fibre-to-the-cabinet connection. But copper is an ageing technology, and full fibre is most certainly the future.

The replacement of copper with full fibre doesn’t necessarily have to mean more expensive broadband. If the entire broadband network runs on full fibre, your provider will still be able to offer you the same speeds as your current copper-based package. But you’ll get the added benefit of being able to upgrade to much faster speeds if or when it suits you. Plus, once full fibre is properly established, those faster speeds should significantly drop in price too.

Working with the government, providers like CityFibre have made a particular effort to install full fibre in underprivileged areas. And Openreach has recently pledged to install broadband for free for residents receiving Universal Credit.

So there are certainly efforts to connect those who haven’t had access to faster broadband speeds before. But the general stance at Connected Britain was that there needs to be a stronger commitment from the entire industry before it appears more equal.

Take a look at our guide on broadband deals for low income families to see what options you have if you receive government financial support.

Digital skills gap

A third and equally crucial thing providers should keep in mind is how full fibre broadband can help to close the digital skills gap.

Not only is it about helping previously-unconnected residents deal with our increasingly-online society, but it’s about improving their confidence too.

1.5 million people got their first home internet connection during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was a significant jump in people looking to get online. But there are still 2.6 million Brits without an internet connection. And since the pandemic impacted everyone, the huge increase in online activity in that period would have shut many of these people out of essential social and professional opportunities.

So at Connected Britain, providers spoke at length about how we could encourage those people to take up their first broadband connection. And all the benefits that come with being online in an increasingly digital world.

Increasing switching confidence

Providers at Connected Britain talked about their intentions to clean up and automate switching broadband wherever possible.

This is especially important for switching between different broadband networks, such as an Openreach one to Virgin Media’s cable. It’s a lot more complicated to process, so providers need to work harder to make it seamless from the customer’s perspective.

By making this process as easy and painless as possible for customers, more people will be able to benefit from fast, consistent broadband.

Compare broadband deals in your area with Uswitch.

Avoiding outages

At Connected Britain, broadband providers discussed plans to avoid these users having a bad experience, such as ‘automated performance monitoring’.

Some providers offer an app that can tell you exactly how your connection is doing at any time of day. It’ll usually tell you where a fault might be coming from if you’re experiencing an issue. However, people who are very new to broadband would find it hard to put a service like this 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 the Wi-Fi to be a constant, where they don’t even have to think about it working. It just does.

Using systems powered by AI and based in the cloud, some providers are now able to be your own personal, remote broadband engineer. They’ll be able to notice connection issues in your home potentially even before you do, and resolve them before the problem affects your time online. So while not all connection issues can be fixed virtually, it certainly helps to avoid many of the problems that could be quickly and easily solved.

Community-led training and support

Local councils across the country have started to introduce digital training sessions to help people get online.

So many activities are now at least partially done online, whether it’s work, your children’s homework, socialising with friends and family, or checking your health. And people who are just now getting their first broadband package would benefit greatly from some support in the early days of their connection.

Director of Digital Social Inclusion, Adam Micklethwaite, called on the government to make this essential training part of its digital policy.

Rather than treating it as an afterthought for people who have just been connected, he said the government needs to make the training part of their first experience. And that proper investment in social infrastructure, such as public centres to conduct the training, will help to deal with the demand for digital inclusion training.

Simply handing out second-hand devices isn’t always enough to give the recipients full, comprehensive access to the internet. Some need the correct guidance to become more productive users of their devices, whether that’s access to useful online resources or socialising with loved ones.

For example, remote school learning is certainly here to stay, especially in schools for homework and extra-curricular lessons. Here’s how you can help your child with their remote learning.

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