June 28, 2023

Digital Leaders Week Webinar - Why Mobile Connectivity Should Be At The Heart Of Digital Inclusion

At Digital Leaders Week our Director of Policy and Communications, Gareth Elliott, was joined by Beena Puri, Innovation and Partnerships Lead at Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), and Hannah Whelan from The Good Things Foundation in a webinar session to discuss digital inclusion and the role of mobile connectivity.  

The webinar, which can be found and replayed here, focused on digital inclusion and the relationship with mobile connectivity and coincided with the publication of Mobile UK’s latest report into digital inclusion.

Gareth opened the discussion by asking Beena and Hannah to define digital exclusion and its impact on people.

Hannah Whelan began by explaining how the pandemic led to the start of the National Data Bank, designed to address accessibility issues which people were experiencing. She highlighted the milestone reached of 1000 databanks across the UK.  

Beena highlighted how digital exclusion is not a new phenomenon and said how the work she does is about empowering people to address inequality. For example, engaging with schools and colleges; working with older people who can’t access healthcare; helping job seekers to secure work opportunities; and working with homeless shelters where people are disconnected as they can’t afford connectivity.

She emphasised that it’s not just people who struggle to engage with digital services but also those with lower digital access illustrating the depth of the issue in her region where 1.2 million residents (41% of the population) in Greater Manchester are considered digitally excluded.

Gareth went on to focus the discussion on mobile connectivity and how both confidence and skills are part of the multifaceted challenge in getting people online and connected.

Hannah Whelan described their work with Data Poverty Lab Fellow Cat Dixon, who created the Pointless Triangle. Encompassing the three elements of skills, devices and data she said people are not considered to be digitally included unless they have all three of these elements.

The panel all agreed there are nuances in why people aren’t online despite having digital access. Hannah went on to say it’s not always just about having a fast or good enough connection, other aspects can be overlooked such as disabilities or visual impairments which require screen readers which are not easy to access.

Beena felt that all these issues go hand in hand – she mentioned how in her area they are looking at digital skills in both work and home life, she said: “We cannot think about isolated issues, people need support to go online safely…it’s a spectrum of inclusion.”

Moving onto mobile connectivity, the need for investment and support from local and national government, Gareth explained: “The role of mobile is not considered on parity with fixed broadband and when we talk to local authorities it’s often not part of their agenda.”  

“1.5 million UK households have digital access only via a mobile connection – which can be seen as more affordable. It’s a very convenient and useful way to access the internet but we need to get the policy space thinking more about mobile.”

He went on to explain the need for the Government to focus on incentivising investment to meet its ambitions for mobile connectivity across the UK. He highlighted the government’s target for getting 5G standalone to the majority of populated areas by 2030 and the work the Shared Rural Network is doing in to extend 4G mobile coverage in rural areas.

Beena focused on the poverty element of exclusion and suggested that digital inclusion should be a basic human right, further stating that connectivity should be a basic utility. She stated that it’s important for life and access to opportunities.

She went on to state that “connectivity needs to be fit for purpose – even social tariffs are not always accessible for people. There is a role for local authorities and national government to look at how we address these gaps.”

The discussion moved onto the need for mobile network infrastructure to ensure capacity and a strong signal. Gareth said a lot of local authority areas don’t have capacity and resources to bid for government money to improve infrastructure.

Beena challenged the idea that local authorities don’t have a focus on mobile in digital strategy saying at a recent event only handful of authority representatives said they did not have a strategy in place but she agreed that digital inclusion is not always in place as part of a plan.

Finally, the panel all agreed that there is an urgent need for the government to publish an updated Digital Inclusion Strategy and that to address these many and varied challenges that everyone needs to come together – the industry, communities and public sector bodies.

About Building Mobile Britain

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Building Mobile Britain is a campaign created by Mobile UK seeking to work with national and local government, as well as interested industry groups to overcome the challenges we face with expanding the existing mobile networks, while also developing innovative services for customers.

See here for further information - or #BuildingMobileBritain

Media Contacts

Gareth Elliott
Head of Policy and Communications
Tel: 07887 911 076

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