What can be done in terms of increasing internet access?

people at a library

Monday, 4 November, 2019

It probably seems unremarkable that you’re reading this article on the internet.

Yet an estimated 18 per cent of the UK population may not be able to read it themselves.

A recent survey by the Oxford Internet Institute concluded ten million UK adults are currently not able to access the internet.

And while comparable figures from the Office for National Statistics put the same figure at a less worrying five million, many people clearly have no route online.

They get their news from the papers, do their research in the library, and have managed to avoid exposure to viral sensations like Baby Shark and Fenton the dog.

We all know older people who have hitherto resisted the siren calls of social media, online shopping and cat memes.

The presence of website addresses at the end of every TV advert is a constant reminder of a world they’re missing out on, either by accident or design.

And even though every telephone landline doubles as a link to the internet, going online can be a frightening proposition to people who never learned to program a VCR.

So, who’s responsible for increasing internet access and eliminating the digital divide? How should this issue be approached? And why are so many people still not connected?

Life on the information hard shoulder

Tackling the last question first, the OII survey drew some interesting conclusions.

A remarkable 69 per cent of respondents claimed not to be interested by the internet’s contents.

Almost 20 per cent of internet refuseniks said they didn’t know how to use it, while one in ten cited privacy worries as a factor keeping them offline.

Even though 40 per cent of respondents reported an annual income of less than £12,500, only one in 50 people said they lacked a computer or other internet-enabled device.

Perhaps most worryingly for the Government, almost three quarters of non-internet users surveyed felt the internet represents a threat to privacy.

The recent controversies around data leaks and political collusion with social media platforms can’t have helped.

What’s being done?

Given the scale of this problem, the UK Government’s £400,000 Digital Inclusion Fund looks like small beer in terms of increasing internet access.

It’s hoped faster connectivity will improve matters, though in reality, few people are remaining offline due to the presence of sluggish Fibre to the Cabinet phone connections.

ONS figures suggest 90 per cent of non-internet users are over 55. These people were adults before the 1980s home computer market took off and PCs became staples in every office.

If you didn’t grow up with computers, they’re intimidating enough without the internet lurking in the background, sporting a villainous rollcall of trolls, bots, scammers and viruses.

It’s unfair to expect central government to educate a wary (and largely elderly) offline community about the joys of YouTube, Steam and Instagram.

And while other media sites could perhaps focus less on reporting data leaks and celebrity trolling, it’s not the press’s job to sell the internet as a concept.

In fact, other organisations are doing precisely that.

The Centre for Ageing Better is tirelessly pushing for more outreach strategies and greater community-based support, teaching older audiences about using the internet safely.

And while there are some great schemes being run in communities up and down the UK, the best teachers are often friends and family – providing they can be patient and methodical…

Pique practice

In many cases, it’s up to individuals to introduce offline friends and relatives to specific features likely to pique their interest.

An obvious first step involves showing people things they couldn’t find at the library or read in a newspaper.

Consider what might inspire someone who doesn’t understand the internet’s potential – Skype calls to foreign relatives, Wikipedia pages about hobbies and interests, and so forth.

If they have a computer at home, help them sign up to an ISP or renegotiate their telephone deal to include broadband. There are loads of affordable low-data deals on this site.

Next, ensure Google is the page that loads when a web browser is clicked. Introduce Google as a digital librarian, demonstrating how to follow hyperlinks and navigate back.

Supervise their first few journeys online, then encourage them to phone you with any concerns or questions. Curiosity will probably do the rest…

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!