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Digital infrastructure and connectivity

Digital infrastructure can be understood as the physical resources – such as broadband and mobile communications – that are needed to enable the use of data and computerised devices / systems.

The Commons Library has published a briefing paper on the Government’s policy for building nationwide gigabit-capable full-fibre broadband (last updated December 2020). Constituency broadband statistics are available on the Library data dashboard: broadband coverage and speeds. The Library has also published an ‘Insight’ on Building the UK’s digital future (January 2020).

Information published by the Government can be found at Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), Building Digital UK, last updated 19 November 2020.

The National Audit Office in their October 2020 report Improving Broadband reported that Ofcom and most local stakeholders consider that existing broadband infrastructure held up well to increased data traffic during the pandemic. However, there has been some congestion and outages at local levels, with some stakeholders representing large rural populations reporting that those with poor broadband availability have felt the impact of more sharply during the pandemic (paragraphs 2.3-2.4 of the NAO report).

Accessibility and the ‘digital divide’

The digital divide is the gap between people in society who have full access to digital technology, such as the internet and computers, and those who do not. There are numerous reasons why someone may be digitally excluded.[1] These include:

  • Not being able to access infrastructure that provides access to the internet, for example living in a location without decent broadband or mobile coverage, or being unable to afford a connection package.
  • Not having access to a device such as a smartphone, laptop or tablet which can connect to the internet.
  • Not having the skills to use a device and/or navigate the online environment safely and effectively.
  • Not having the will or motivation to use the internet and learn the necessary skills.

Concerns about the digital divide have been particularly acute during the COVID-19 pandemic as internet access has become increasingly important for accessing public services, health information and staying connected to family and friends.[2] For children, the internet and device access may be required for home schooling[3] and adults may require additional digital skills for working from home.[4]

In 2020, ONS survey data suggested that 96% of households in Great Britain had access to the internet, up from 93% in 2019.[5] In previous years, the ONS published data on those who did not have access to the internet. Of the 7% of survey participants that did not have access in 2019, 61% reported that they felt they did not need it, 34% felt they lacked the skills required to use it and 33% were concerned about security or privacy. In addition, 29% of respondents said that access costs were too high and 28% said equipment costs were too high. The ONS also found that 7.5% of adults had never used the internet

[1]    NHS Digital, What we mean by digital inclusion, 21 April 2020

[2]    Good Things Foundation, Coronavirus and leaving no-one behind, 5 March 2020

[3]    BBC News, ‘Digital poverty’ in schools where few have laptops, 24 April 2020

[4]    Good Things Foundation, Who needs digital skills now?, 11 May 2020

[5]    Office for National Statistics, Internet access – households and individuals, Great Britain: 2020, 7 August 2020 [accessed 1 December 2020].

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