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There will be a debate in Westminster Hall on Thursday 4 November 2021 at 1.30pm on tackling the digital divide. The subject for this debate has been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee and the debate will be opened by Stephen Timms MP.
A similar debate was held last year on 3 December 2020: Digital Infrastructure, Connectivity and Accessibility.
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. These include:
- Not being able to access infrastructure that provides access to the internet, for example living in a location without sufficient 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.
- Choosing not to use the internet and/or learn the necessary skills required.
More information about why individuals may be digitally excluded and the specific impact of the covid-19 pandemic on the digital divide is provided in the December 2020 POST rapid response, COVID-19 and the digital divide.
This page provides brief information and links to further Library resources on each of the above areas. A glossary of key terms is provided at the end of all our briefing papers.
Broadband connectivity in the UK
The table below shows how broadband connectivity differs between urban and rural areas in the UK’s regions and nations as of May 2021.
Superfast broadband availability remains higher in urban areas than rural areas. Urban availability is above 96% in each region and nation except for the South West. Meanwhile, rural superfast availability is below 90% in all but two regions and is below 75% in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Gigabit broadband availability varies substantially between different regions and nations. Overall, availability is higher in urban areas – and especially in cities – than in rural areas. But in some regions of England, rural and urban availability are similar.
The gigabit broadband rollout is ongoing, so figures are likely to increase in the next data release (expected December 2021).
This data is based on our analysis of Ofcom’s Connected Nations Summer 2021 update.
Our broadband data dashboard allows users to explore broadband speeds and availability by constituency.
Improving broadband availability: government policy
The Government’s target is for at least 85% of UK premises to have access to gigabit-broadband by 2025.
This target is expected to be met by private investment covering 80% of premises and 5% covered by public funding. The Government said in August 2021 that it was “increasingly confident” that the 85% target could be exceeded.
Our briefing, Gigabit-broadband in the UK: Government targets and policy (30 April 2021) provides discussion of government policy to meet its target, which is primarily aimed at promoting competition between private sector telecoms companies to incentivise investment.
The Government has promised £5 billion to subsidise the roll-out of gigabit-broadband to the ‘hardest to reach’ premises in the country that will not be reached by private investment (20% of the UK). The funding programme is called ‘Project Gigabit’.
The Government’s 85% target for gigabit broadband, announced in November 2020, is a reduction from its original aim to deliver nationwide gigabit broadband coverage by 2025. The reduced target was described as a “blow to rural communities” but is considered much more realistic by industry. Rural stakeholders have since welcomed initial progress on Project Gigabit during 2021 as “a good start” but said that the Government needed to keep up the momentum.
Further information is in our briefing, Gigabit-broadband in the UK: Public funding (2 September 2021).
On 29 October 2021 the Government published its third quarterly progress report on Project Gigabit, available here. The progress report includes an updated timeline for Project Gigabit procurements and an update on expanded commercial plans.
Mobile connectivity in the UK
The table below shows rural-urban differences in 4G mobile coverage in England. This data is based on constituency data, meaning that it uses the rural-urban classification of constituencies rather than smaller areas. As a result, it may understate the differences between urban and rural areas.
The gap between rural and urban 4G indoor coverage is fairly consistent bewteen English regions, at around 20 percentage points. The gap varies more when comparing 4G geographical (outdoor) coverage between rural and urban constituencies, but overall there is an 11 percentage point gap between coverage in rural and urban constituencies.
The table does not show figures for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland because of different rural-urban classifications for constituencies. The total figures for the three devolved nations are as follows:
- in Wales, 4G covers 74% of premises indoors and 60% of geographical area with all operators;
- in Scotland it is 82% of premises indoors and 45% of geographical area;
- in Northern Ireland it is 66% of premises indoors and 80% of geographical area.
This data is based on our analysis of Ofcom’s Connected Nations Summer 2021 update.
Improving mobile coverage: Government policy
One of the main UK Government measures aimed at improving gaps in 4G mobile coverage is the Shared Rural Network (SRN) announced in March 2020. The SRN is an agreement with industry expected to bring 4G coverage to 95% of the UK landmass by 2025. This means 95% of the UK should receive signal from at least one mobile network operator (EE, Three, Vodafone or O2).
The mobile operators have committed to the following coverage obligations that are legally enforceable by Ofcom:
- Each operator to reach 88 per cent coverage of the UK by 30 June 2024;
- Each operator to reach 90 per cent coverage of the UK by 30 June 2026;
- Each operator to reach nation-specific coverage targets in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales by 2026;
- Collectively, operators will provide additional coverage to 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads by 2026.
There is a dedicated website set up to provide information, FAQs and progress updates on the SRN. It includes forecasts of where mobile coverage is likely to improve due to the SRN at a regional level. Rural stakeholders welcomed the SRN, and called for the programme to be delivered without delay and for mobile operators to be held to their commitments.
In addition, the Government has stated that it plans to bring forward policy reforms to make it easier for the mobile industry to build new infrastructure, for example reforms to planning rules and the Electronic Communications Code (which governs the rights of telecoms companies to access land). Our briefing, Building telecommunications infrastructure provides information and commentary on these proposed reforms.
Rural mobile coverage will also likely to benefit from the release of new radio wave spectrum by Ofcom in 2021. The 700 MHz spectrum band was auctioned in March 2021; its relatively low frequency makes it well-suited for providing coverage to rural areas.
Digital skills, accessibility and affordability
Even in areas where there is good digital infrastructure available, a digital divide may still exist for individuals that may not be able to use or access digital services.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey data from 2020 found that 95% of UK adults had used the internet in the past 3 months. Certain groups are more likely to be internet non-users than others, in particular older age groups and disabled people. Other survey data suggest that for adults who do not use the internet, some of the main reasons include a lack of interest or perceived need, privacy and security concerns, lack of ability to use it, and cost of access.
Further discussion on demographic factors and digital skills is available in the following sources:
- The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology rapid response, Covid-19 and the digital divide (December 2020)
- Lloyds Bank, UK Consumer Digital Index 2021.
- Good Things Foundation, We can’t delay: It’s time to Fix the Digital Divide, September 2021
- Age UK, Digital inclusion and older people – how have things changed in a Covid-19 world?, March 2021
The Government explained what steps it was taking to help prevent people from becoming digitally excluded in response to a Parliamentary question in September 2021. These included: encouraging telecoms providers to offer social tariffs to low-income households (see below on affordability), launching a £2.5 million Digital Lifeline Fund to reduce the digital exclusion of people with learning disabilities, and introducing a digital entitlement for adults in England with no or low digital skills to undertake specified digital qualifications.
Skills is a devolved matter therefore the devolved Administrations have separate initiatives on digital skills and inclusion. For example, see:
- Scottish Government, Connecting Scotland (March 2021) and Progress Report on Scotland’s Digital Strategy (July 2021)
- Welsh Government, Digital Inclusion Forward Look: towards a digitally confident Wales (December 2020)
- Northern Ireland Executive, Go ON NI initiative
Affordability of telecoms services
The coronavirus pandemic has also heightened concerns about the affordabilityof telecom services. Ofcom reported in July 2021 that 2 million households experienced an affordability issue with their broadband or mobile service in the last month.
Further discussion on affordability is available in our briefing, Telecoms: fairness and protection for consumers.
This page provides information about mobile roaming charges for UK customers after the end of the Brexit transition period.
Browse local data to see how broadband connectivity and speeds vary in different parts of the UK