An estimated 3 billion people remain digitally unconnected from the rest of the world; a limitation that affects everything from health and education, to gender equality and sustainability.

Although we live in an increasingly online world, significant parts of the UK, and many other areas of the world, remain digitally excluded. In the UK, one in 10 adults has never used the internet, and many more are missing out on the opportunities the digital world offers, whether through lack of connectivity, digital skills or motivation. 

Research shows that those who lack digital connectivity are far less able to mobilise themselves economically. Without access to financial services and digital skills training, people aren’t able to fully participate in the digital economy, limiting their potential for income generation and economic growth.

From employability and education, to healthcare and communication, digital technology can bring life-enhancing benefits, and life-saving ones too.  Digital connectivity means essential information, services, and support is available in times of crisis; it enables individuals to access resources and opportunities that improve their health, safety, and wellbeing.

But of course, digital connectivity alone is not enough; efforts to bridge the digital divide, ensure digital literacy, and address barriers to access are essential.   

According to Good Things Foundation, a UK charity that works to tackle digital exclusion, 2.9 billion people are digitally excluded globally, and in the UK, 10 million people lack the basic foundation skills needed to participate in the digital world. Non-users are 12 times more likely to be over the age of 65 and two times more likely to have a health condition or disability.

Skills is a barrier, but also access. Ofcom reports that 6% of households with fixed broadband and 8% of households with a mobile phone are struggling to afford these bills. People claiming benefits, living with a disability, and minority ethnic groups are far more likely to be struggling.

So, what’s being done to help bridge the digital divide?

The key role of public and private partnerships

Initiatives established through public-private partnerships (PPPs) are proving to be a powerful force for bridging the digital divide — utilising the different strengths, resources and expertise within each sector.

Public sector organisations have access to government funding, regulatory frameworks, and infrastructure, while private companies can bring expertise, innovation, and investment capabilities. Collaborating allows for the pooling of resources, maximising their collective impact.

Technology, Business and Impact Advisor, Travis Heneveld, believes broadband connectivity is essential and fundamental for education, health, innovation, and economic development.

“Unprecedented levels of private and public funding are currently available to close the digital divide, and help rural and remote communities access the tools, partners, and training they need,” he says. 

His award-winning, non-profit organisation Geeks Without Frontiers is on a mission to ‘promote technology for a resilient world’. It focuses on broadband adoption and digital inclusion via initiatives such as the N50 Project, which is working towards participation for the ‘Next 50%’. The program aims to accelerate digital adoption and community enrichment through innovative applications and business models developed through commercial, non-profit, government, and community partnerships.

“The project brought together the resources of multiple partners – including local community members [enabling us to] accelerate learning, scale effectively, and problem-solve in ways that would have otherwise been unimaginable,” says Travis.

The organisation works with the government as well as First Nation communities, on research and analysis of digital access for telehealth, distance learning and remote working for low-to-middle income households.

“Public-private partnership initiatives can act as a pivotal step towards inclusivity, ensuring that community members have equal access to much-needed digital tools and services,” says Travis. “They also ensure that both the public and private sectors share in the risks and rewards associated with developing digital equity and inclusion operations.”

Often these operations will involve long-term contracts and commitments, he says, spanning decades. The private-public partnership allows communities to plan sustainably while helping the private sector recoup their investments and earn a return. It can also ensure operations meet certain standards and service levels, as they are structured around performance metrics.

Private companies are often more agile and innovative in developing technology solutions tailored to the needs of underserved communities, while government bodies can help ensure these innovations are deployed effectively and reach those who need them the most. Partnering with the public sector enables resources to be harnessed for the benefit of marginalized communities, extending the reach of digital connectivity initiatives.

“By involving stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, including government agencies, businesses, civil society organizations, and community groups, initiatives to bridge the digital divide can be tailored to meet the specific needs and challenges of underserved populations,” says Travis.

The Good Things Foundation’s Digital Skills Pathway program is another example of an effective PPP. They received funding from the UK Government’s Community Renewal Fund, enabling them to address the challenge of how to embed digital inclusion in local investment, for economic recovery. It created local pathways of support, in partnership with three combined authorities – Greater Manchester, West Midlands, and North of Tyne.

Good Things have also worked with the London office of Technology and Innovation to grow a network of hubs where Londoners can get free help to use the internet, with now over 700 places for people to go.

Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, which launched in 2017, saw Microsoft collaborate with local governments and internet service providers with the aim of expanding access to affordable high-speed internet in rural and underserved areas around the globe. The initiative focuses on leveraging innovative technologies, including TV white spaces (unused spectrum between television channels), to deliver broadband internet connectivity to communities that lack reliable access.

AT&T, one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world, has also partnered with government agencies to create an ‘Access Program’, offering low-cost internet access to low-income households. The program offers discounted internet service to eligible participants, making it more accessible for underserved communities to get online and access essential online services

Developing digital literacy and skills

“The economic case for investing in basic digital skills is strong. For every £1 invested in interventions to enable digitally excluded people to build their basic digital skills, an estimated return of £9.48 is gained throughout the economy, with a returned Net Present Value of £12.2 billion.”   Good Things Foundation.

Good Things Foundation operates online learning platforms such as Learn My Way and English My Way, which offer free courses and resources to help people develop basic digital skills, improve their English language proficiency, and navigate the digital world effectively. These platforms cover topics such as using computers and the internet, online safety and security, job searching and digital employment skills, and managing finances online.

They also work with a network of community organisations, libraries, and schools to deliver digital inclusion programs across the UK.

Libraries and educational institutions play a vital role in promoting digital literacy; through workshops, classes, and training schemes that teach people how to use computers, navigate the internet, create digital content, and protect their online privacy and security.

Businesses are increasingly partnering with educational institutions to develop and deliver digital literacy and skills training programs. These partnerships provide businesses with access to expertise and resources in education and training, while also giving learners the opportunity to gain practical experience and relevant skills through internships, apprenticeships, and industry partnerships.

Learn more in our upcoming programme on Connectivity

Digital Britain: Connecting our Nation

ITN Business will be showcasing the individuals and organisations that are playing a part in the digital revolution and enabling connectivity, in Digital Britain: Connecting the Nation.

The news-style programme will be presented by journalist and ITV News presenter, Duncan Golestani, and will launch at Connected Britain, London, 11th-12th September 2024.

The programme will feature contributions from thought leaders in the connectivity and digital infrastructure sector, Connected Britain, MobileUK, TechUK and UK Telecoms Innovation Network. It will also feature case study-led stories of the impact the digital infrastructure sector has on connecting the nation and looking at future technology and innovation.

There are commercial opportunities for leading organisations to be featured in the programme and spearhead their own news item. If your organisation wants to share what you stand for and be part of this important conversation about connecting Britain, please contact Head Programming Director James Linden or Programming Director James Salver.