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New report calls for more action to tackle digital exclusion

Women On Mobile Phones

Cost-of-living crisis found to exacerbate existing digital access inequalities. 

A new report has exposed the digital divide that is hampering efforts by people and communities to manage in the face of the cost-of-living crisis, with calls for governments and housing providers to urgently improve digital accessibility. 

The ‘Digital exclusion and the cost-of-living crisis report’ from the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, was commissioned by leading social enterprise Places for People, to understand the impact of digital exclusion.  

As well as studying the latest research into digital exclusion, the report authors gathered hundreds of first-hand accounts from those living with disadvantage and a lack of digital access. 

According to latest figures, 14 million people in the UK have low digital capability, with two million households saying they are struggling to afford their internet bills. 

An earlier survey by Places for People showed that an increasing number of households are struggling to manage their household incomes. 

The financial wellbeing survey of over 4,700 Places for People customers found that in one year the number of households saying they are struggling to manage financially rose from 16% to 27%.

According to the Cambridge University report, internet access is an essential utility, but continued access and capability can be taken for granted. Around 18.7 million people (35%) in the UK claim that the rising cost of living is impacting their ability to go online. 

Key findings from the report include: 

  • The cost-of-living crisis has exacerbated existing digital exclusion challenges. 
  • Needing to complete important tasks online, including job, housing, and welfare benefit applications, can put those with limited internet access at a further disadvantage. Relying on public or communal Wi-Fi, for example, can mean an unreliable or slow connection which restricts opportunities to break the negative feedback loop between digital exclusion and poverty. 
  • Internet access at home should be treated as an essential utility for all households. Government must act on its promise to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to 99% of premises by 2030; having already revised this from an initial target of 2025. 

Places for People is calling for a multi-agency investment approach to make urgent improvements to digital infrastructure, with a priority focus for those in social housing and emergency housing, such as homeless temporary accommodation. The organisation is asking local and national government and other agencies to work together to enable internet access for all, regardless of their personal or financial circumstances. 

Places for People is currently working with Vodafone and the Good Things Foundation to support their customers with access to data and devices, as well as working with CityFibre to upgrade broadband to gigabit speed full fibre in over 38,000 multi-dwelling homes. 

They are also working with Pocket Power on a community engagement initiative to support their customers to save money on their household bills. Recent pilots of the scheme showed savings of around 15% on broadband.  

Branwen Evans, Director of Policy, Research and Public Affairs at Places for People, said: “This report provides us with hard data on something that is so important to our communities but is unfortunately often overlooked in discourse around the cost-of-living crisis. It reaffirms our view that access to the internet should be a vital consideration when providing people with homes and health and wellbeing centres. 

“Whilst many of the report’s recommendations require longer term investment and concerted action, there are things that housing providers and those supporting communities can do in the short term, including sharing information about help available and providing training and staff support with getting online.” 

Dr Gemma Burgess, Director of the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, said: “Internet access is an essential utility and should be treated as such. This is about helping people in the community to thrive, because digital access is as fundamental today as other utilities.  

“The internet gives people an opportunity to stay in touch with friends and family, look for work, interact with the government or agencies, receive important email updates and so much more.  

“With people having to make difficult financial choices in this cost-of-living crisis, it is important that internet access does not become a luxury only some can afford.”