Connecting Britain: Connecting the unconnected
Matt Spencer, O2’s Head of Public Sector Sales, reports from O2’s Blue Door Conference about connectivity, digital exclusion and how we connect the unconnected.
At O2’s Blue Door Conference in October it was a privilege to share a platform with a panel of experts from government, business and industry, to discuss many of the social and technology challenges we face in reaching our goal of Connecting Britain. Understandably the discussion about 5G, and the technology it enables, was very exciting. But it was the focus on digital exclusion that I found particularly interesting.
Digital exclusion takes many forms, the most fundamental of which relates to the ability to connect. We tend to focus on the good news stories, like the fact that four in five households have a fixed broadband connection, according to Ofcom. Or that 72% of the online community use their mobile phone to access the internet, now the most common method for people to go online. But whilst coverage continues to improve, we all know that rural communities are less well served, and that demand in many rural areas is not enough to cover the cost of mobile infrastructure investment.
Melissa Giordano, Deputy Director, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, (and directly responsible for mobile coverage, spectrum policy, road and rail connectivity and 5G policy) talked about how our relationship with connectivity has continued to evolve. What started as a business need, evolved into something that was seen as desirable but not essential, and now to today where it is absolutely critical for everyone’s daily lives. It connects us with loved ones, communities, colleagues, news and services such as shopping, health and support. All of which need to be accessible regardless of location, income, education, age or disability.
She gave several examples of the ways that a lack of connectivity affects pockets of rural households throughout the country. For example, a Bed & Breakfast owner who only leaves the house when absolutely necessary, for fear of missing a booking. And the school children in Wales, whose parents must drive a few miles to a lay-by where the signal is strong enough to submit their homework.
For Melissa, the solution is to break down and simplify the legislative barriers that relate to mobile and fixed infrastructure, including making it straightforward for providers to share spectrum, and making it simpler for mobile operators to work together when it makes good sense.
Network sharing is something we are very familiar with at O2. We recently extended our network sharing deal with Vodafone to include our 5G deployment – a partnership arrangement that has been in place for more than a decade.
At the Blue Door Conference, our own CEO, Mark Evans, spoke about the need for the Shared Rural Network, and why we should prioritise digital inclusion, rather than simply put all O2’s investment and resources into 5G alone. In September, Mark wrote about how only 67% of UK landmass receives 4G coverage from all four operators, while about 7% of the UK receives no 4G coverage from any operator.
That’s why O2 and the other operators have together developed the Shared Rural Network (SRN) proposal, and you may have seen in the press that it now has government backing and looks set to become a reality. The SRN will increase all-operator geographic coverage from the current level of 67% to 92%, Partial Not Spots will almost all disappear and over 3,700sq miles of the UK will for the first time be covered by 4G.
The digitally excluded
Of course digital exclusion extends beyond the issue of connectivity alone. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there were still 5.3 million adults in the UK in 2018, or around 10% of the adult UK population, who were considered “internet non-users”.
Geoff Connell is Head of Information Management and Technology at Norfolk County Council, and he joined our Blue Door panel to talk about some of the issues he faces concerning digital exclusion in his county. His aim is to make Norfolk the UK’s most connected rural county, and fast broadband availability is currently at 93% and rising. However, with the council increasingly communicating and delivering services online, it is vital that everyone is able to benefit and no one is left behind. It’s a familiar picture in remote areas across the country.
Connectivity is essential, certainly, but there is also a skills gap that needs to be addressed. According to the Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Skills Index, 20% of the population lack basic digital skills. It’s not unexpected that this group is also amongst the most poorly paid and the least educated, but the report identified that this also includes the elderly and the disabled – and that 56% of those with a disability are digitally excluded and 27% of adults with a disability have never been online.
In reference to this insight, Melissa Giordano sees opportunities for technology training providers of all kinds, and suggested that pop up technology workshops in schools and care homes were a part of the solution.
Digital exclusion is something we take seriously at O2, and we have partnered with a number of organisations focused on addressing it throughout the UK. A great example is our recent work with Leeds Libraries to deliver a secure, managed tablet lending service as part of an ambitious plan to ensure that every Leeds resident has basic digital skills.
Another is our long-term partnership with RNIB, together with whom we developed In Your Pocket, an intelligent mobile device that gives those affected by sight loss a fully functioning Smartphone as well as access to daily newspapers, popular magazines, audiobooks and podcasts.
5G and the way forward
We simply mustn’t allow anyone to be left behind, so it was encouraging to hear Mark Evans explain that O2’s network plans for the coming years strike a balance between establishing 5G in our cities and continuing to improve access to 4G, wi-fi and other forms of connectivity elsewhere.
There is no single solution that closes the digital gap completely. 5G will play an important part, but it will require initiatives such as the Shared Rural Network, collaborations and partnerships between networks and business, as well as investment and support for the hardest to reach places and people to enable everyone to benefit from a truly Connected Britain.