Ever since lockdown was announced last March, technology has played a vital role in providing some sense of normality for many. Microsoft Teams has become the place for office banter (and serious work discussions), Zoom has replaced the Friday night pub trip, and Deliveroo brings restaurants straight to our doors.
For most people, access to this technology is taken for granted, with fast Wi-Fi and a working laptop with access to fast internet as important as running water. But for many families in the UK, these now necessities are not as readily available to them, which has made the last 12 months particularly difficult.
A nation divided
In the UK, the likelihood of a household having access to the internet is directly related to its income. A recent study from the ONS finds that only 51% of households earning between £6000-10,000 had home internet access compared with 99% of households with an income of over £40,001.
Now that schools have been told to close, children across the country are having to get the bulk of their education online which has shone a light on the nation’s clear digital divide. Disadvantaged children without access to the internet are missing out on essential lessons, which will likely only further deepen the social and economic divide in the UK.
On the plus side, it seems mobile and broadband companies have reacted to this issue and are answering calls to help support families struggling with connectivity during lockdown.
The UK’s biggest telecoms companies including BT, EE, Vodafone, Sky, Virgin Media, Sky, O2 and Three have all launched initiatives that offer free data and internet packages to help children access online learning tools.
Initiatives such as these will no doubt give many children access to education in the short term, but they won’t continue forever. The pandemic has simply highlighted an existing issue, but the country leaders can view this as an opportunity to develop more long-term solutions to stem the growing digital divide.
There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the UK’s move to digital. It has completely changed the way we interact and communicate, as well as the way we work and learn. And many of these effects are here to stay.
So, unless digital exclusion is taken seriously and comprehensively dealt with, there’s a big risk that millions of the most disadvantaged children in this country will be woefully unprepared for an increasingly digital future.