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Broadband connectivity alone will not persuade the last 20%

Thursday, March 12th 2015 by Tristan Wilkinson
Industry maven and Cable.co.uk tech columnist Tristan Wilkinson explores how a lack of digital skills is a bigger roadblock to getting online than poor broadband.

We appear to have got stuck. Despite the overwhelming predominance of technology in society and our personal lives it is estimated that close to 20% of adults in the UK lack the digital skills to fully engage and participate in modern life.

This is a huge number; 10.5 million adults lacking basic digital skills. It’s a number that has barely moved in years.

It has been estimated that the annual social value of every individual getting online for the first time is £1,064. Booz & Co said in 2012 that a fully digital nation would be worth an extra £63bn to our annual GDP and that digital technology could unlock £18.8bn in revenue for small and medium-sized UK businesses.

With such compelling evidence, why aren’t we making faster progress? Maybe the challenge is perceived as just too large to solve?

As technology races ahead, some elements of the debate are becoming more complex. Access is certainly not the issue it once was. For many in the claimed 20% group, even free broadband would not be enough to persuade them to engage and change their behavior.

If government, housing associations, local authorities and employers want increased digital skills, they are going to have to do a better job to motivate and help those currently choosing not to participate.

What should the role of Government be?

One challenge with the status quo could be that the 20% claim isn’t recognised by some of the central departments within government. I recently attended a conference and spoke with two senior civil servants about this. One stated that closer to 8% need help with technology, while the other said an even lower number who can’t access their services due to a lack of skills or a lack of access.

The current consensus is that those who fall into the 20% category are mostly either elderly, on very low incomes, live in rural locations or are people with very low educational attainment. Nearly 2.5 million live in social housing and nearly 5 million are over 50. So why the apparent disconnect?

Perhaps the measure of confidence is too subjective? For example, I’m a competent driver. Ask me and most of the time I'll tell you so. Yet there are some days when I may feel less confident about my ability. Ask me about my driving on those days – on the wrong days – and you will get a very different answer.

Why is industry not fully engaged?

You would imagine that with 10.5 million potential customers that industry would be falling over itself to bring these people into market, but with very few exceptions they are not. Part of the challenge for industry is prioratisation and the need to maximize return on the dwindling marketing budgets they have.

The way the conversation is framed at the moment is that digital skills is a problem that needs to be solved instead of an opportunity waiting to be grasped.

Industry does not currently regard those with low digital skills as an addressable market and thus it represents risk. As a result, industry therefore continues to focus its efforts on where it knows it can make money. There is much talk in the media about the power of the grey pound and the relative wealth of pensioners and there is evidence that older people are adopting technology at a fast pace.

However there have been multiple efforts to address older people in the context of the digital skills agenda and all have had lacklustre results. It appears that the older people that are adopting technology are doing so as mainstream consumers through choice not through persuasion or coercion.

Choice not coercion more likely to help the digitally excluded

How do we change things?

The 10.5 million number feels like trying to climb a mountain. It's a worthwhile and admirable task, but out of reach for most, so we sit back and wait for someone else to do it. If we are to get on top of this issue once and for all, maybe it’s time we thought about it in a different way.

One area that feels underdeveloped to me is the use of mobiles. Smartphones have seen one of the fastest technology adoption cycles in history, yet it barely features as part of the solution to tackle the divide.

While I would certainly not suggest that a phone has the potential to be the one and only device, the fact is that a lot of the people who fall into the 20% category already have phones. Continuing to try and push them to adopt additional technology with additional costs such as a landline may simply not be worth it.

For many years the smartphone really wasn’t up to the job for two main reasons: reliability and speed of connection and screen size. With the rollout of 4G and increasing screen sizes, at last it feels that smartphones have the potential to make significant impact, maybe we should be developing solutions for the technology people already have instead or trying them to change their behavior?

The government should:

  • Be focused on where there is clear and significant market failure and where the market is unlikely to focus its resources
  • Ensure that take up is part of their superfast vision
  • Work to make part of the market addressable for industry to invest in
  • Provide detailed evaluation of those who are held back through lack of digital skills and develop an understanding of the interventions that have been proven to be most effective
  • Establish a forensic segmentation of those left behind, who they are, where they are why they're not engaged
  • Facilitate collaboration
  • Adopt a mobile first strategy

If we start to break down the problem into its component parts and take a more business-like approach, we may be surprised at what we can achieve. After all, while most of us would shy away from climbing a huge mountain, there's more who are willing to take a charge at reaching base camp.

Tristan Wilkinson, Cable.co.uk technology columnist

Tristan has worked within the technology sector for over twenty years in a variety of leadership roles for organisations such as Intel, PSInet and most recently digital skills charity Go ON UK. He regularly speaks on digital skills and inclusion topics and worked closely with the strategy unit at No. 10 on the Tech City and Start Up Britain Initiatives. Tristan now runs his own consultancy, Digital Citizens

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