While recent tech headlines have all been about ChatGPT (I’ve tried writing a Board report using this technology without much success) and the advance of AI, including calls from those within the sector to see a temporary halt for the time being, this contrasts sharply with what I think is the real tech story. For many of us, we take our ‘connectivity’ for granted and in turn what this allows us to do – be it quickly checking public transport times, what’s app-ing a family member, getting Twitter updates on the match or simply making an appointment. The story for me is that over 11m people in the UK, with around a third of those living in affordable housing, are digitally excluded.
We all know the cost-of-living crisis has impacted heavily on some of our customers and it’s those on lower incomes that are disproportionately worse off as a result. So, when you add the challenges posed by the cost-of-living crisis to being digitally excluded, the sum isn’t a hard one to solve.
For those who are digitally excluded, the economic and social impacts are significant; never more so than now - being digitally excluded permeates everything from education and employment through to securing competitive prices for goods and even how healthcare services can be accessed. For our organisation, digital exclusion also presents challenges for how our customers can readily engage and communicate with us, whether this is paying bills, reporting repairs or in getting vital benefits advice. As a result, this all impacts on a core part of our mission; seeing customers supported to remain in their own homes.
So, given our own work in this area and with the last national digital exclusion strategy dating from 2014, it was great to see the House of Lords Communications & Digital Committee launch an inquiry into the cost-of-living crisis and digital exclusion. As a result, we thought it worthy to set out our thoughts, which we’ve submitted to the Committee’s inquiry – aside from setting out how our customers are affected, we’ve also highlighted areas of focus and where from our experience, steps can be taken to address some of the challenges.
For instance, and from our experience, we know the practical take-up of the social tariffs that many broadband providers helpfully offer is limited. Indeed, whilst everyone is aware of the heat or eat trope, our anecdotal evidence is that the first thing our customers sacrifice is access to broadband. Our feedback is reflective of research Ofcom completed last year, which found that only 1.2% of the over 4million UK households that receive Universal Credit have successfully applied to be placed on such tariffs while 84% of benefit claimants are unaware of social tariffs. So, work to be done here clearly!
So, aside from the need for a new and updated national strategy, and for efforts to be taken to address the low take-up of existing social tariffs, we’ve also highlighted the need for tax arrangements linked to broadband services to also be reviewed.
As part of the inquiry, which is ongoing, it was great to see the House of Lord’s Committee hear from the Good Things Foundation – a leading organisation working in this area. We’ve benefited from the work of the Good Things Foundation which, through its industry partnership, has donated data enabled sim cards that we’ve been able to hand to some of our in-need customers.
At a time when the government’s going for growth, the country is certainly ‘losing out’ through digital exclusion – research by the CEBR in 2022 estimated that for every £1 spent on addressing digital exclusion, a contribution of nearly £9.50 would subsequently be made to the UK’s economy. Aside from the social imperative to get a grip on this, there’s also now a clear economic one. If we can see further positive steps taken to help address the issue, we’ll certainly see benefit delivered for many of our customers and in turn, the country more broadly – but it will take Government to help drive matters and for civil society partners, like us, to continue to do our bit and in turn, the digital divide will hopefully be addressed. In the meantime, we’ll continue to work hard to deliver benefit to our customers via our three-pronged approach of helping with access to devices, helping provide access to data and crucially, in some instances, with providing digital training.
 “The Economic Case for Digital Inclusion’, CEBR for Good Things Foundation & Capita, July 2022