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Over a million houses remain offline but digital divide narrowing, Ofcom says

Image credit: DT

The UK’s digital divide narrowed during 2020 as people were obliged to use more online tools due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Ofcom has found, although many households remain offline.

The proportion of homes without internet access appears to have fallen from 11 per cent in March 2020, when the UK entered lockdown, to 6 per cent of homes in March 2021.

While this is mostly good news, the 6 per cent of homes that remain offline - equating to around 1.5 million households - are likely to be even more disempowered than before, Ofcom said. This is because the general need for internet access has increased substantially as services and even working life has moved online during the pandemic.

Groups least likely to have home internet access are those aged over 65, lower income households and the most financially vulnerable.

Almost half of adults who remain offline say they find the internet too complicated or it holds no interest for them. Meanwhile, for more than a third of people the lack of equipment is a barrier.

Around six in ten of those who don’t use the internet at home say they have asked someone to do something for them online in the past year. Among these ‘proxy users’, the most common need was help in buying something.

However, adults with previously limited digital skills were found to have embraced online shopping, digital banking and video calling, while younger people acted as IT support, helping older or less digitally confident friends and relatives get connected.

Furthermore, nearly all children of school age had online access in the home; 4 per cent relied solely on mobile internet access during the pandemic, with 2 per cent only able to get online using a smartphone.

School-aged children from the most financially vulnerable homes (5 per cent) were more likely than those in the least financially vulnerable households (2 per cent) to have mobile-only access.

“For many people, lockdown will leave a lasting legacy of improved online access and better digital understanding,” said Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s strategy and research group director. “But for a significant minority of adults and children, it’s only served to intensify the digital divide.

“We’ll continue to work with government and other partner organisations to promote digital literacy and ensure that people of all ages and backgrounds are empowered to share in the benefits of the internet.”

In March this year, the Ada Lovelace Institute warned that Covid-19 specific tech, such as contact-tracing apps, could be worsening the digital divide.

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