May 3, 2022

Guest Blog: Recognising digital inclusion and climate change initiatives in UK mobile

By Lyndsey Burton, MD of Choose.

The mobile industry plays a vital role in keeping us connected with each other, although their roots within communities and their efforts to become greener and more planet friendly can often go unnoticed. Every mobile network operator is running important initiatives to improve digital inclusion and battle towards net zero, but it’s crucial that we offer credit where it’s due and celebrate the changes that are being made across the industry.  

Digital exclusion is a stubbornly persistent issue, even in light of increased take-up of digital services during the coronavirus pandemic. Ofcom’s latest figures on the proportion of households with no internet access suggest that 1.7 million fall into that category, although a majority of those (69%) say nothing would prompt them to go online within the next 12 months. At the same time, 49% of those who didn’t have access to home internet had asked someone else to do something online for them in the previous year. This indicates that the internet is useful to those households, even if they’re not accessing it directly.  

Smartphone-only home internet access is becoming more important, with Ofcom estimating 21% of users access the internet exclusively through a smartphone. That situates mobile networks directly in the heart of digital inclusion as a fifth rely on their phones to get the internet access they need.  

In some cases, this is financial assistance. We’ve seen Virgin Media O2, Vodafone and Three support the Good Things Foundation's National Databank to provide SIM cards to those in data poverty while networks independently run their own schemes to improve access to connectivity. Partnerships like these target the people who need assistance directly, a vital component when we consider that individuals and households who most need this support are those least likely to know where to access it.  

As important, however, are projects that improve digital literacy as well as plugging the inclusion gap. Ofcom’s research separates internet users into three groups: ‘narrow’, ‘medium’ and ‘broad’. Those in the ‘narrow’ segment, accounting for 29% of users, can undertake between one and four of 13 regular online activities. Ofcom highlighted the fact that these users have lower-than-average confidence in their online activities and are less critically aware of their online environment.  

Mobile network operators are working to address these issues in innovative ways. For example, EE's PhoneSmart training helps children become more confident online, but that tool becomes even more important for children in households where their parents or guardians are not confident themselves about going online. So, training is as important as access, and it’s great to see mobile networks incorporating such schemes into their inclusion strategies.  

It would be easy to point to cheap data plans and say that the job of mobile networks is done, but that disregards the importance of other types of digital inclusion. It isn’t just about having the financial means to get online via a smartphone, it’s also about having the confidence to do so and to do so safely.  

As well as battling against digital exclusion, mobile network operators are also battling against climate change. Whether it’s switching their in-house power to 100% renewable electricity or making a deliberate push towards decarbonising their supply chains, the mobile industry is looking critically at the challenges facing the planet and attempting to meet them head-on.  

More can always be done, and progress relies as much on mindset shifts among customers as eco-friendly schemes being put into place by mobile networks. What further incentives can networks offer to encourage recycling of mobile phones, for example, and how can e-waste recycling be embedded in the national psyche? The mobile industry cannot fix these problems alone, but they can work with other industries and lobby the government to improve legislation and, most importantly, make things clearer for customers.  

Small changes by mobile networks make big differences to communities and the country more widely. We’ve seen that already through digital inclusion and recycling schemes, and no doubt we’ll continue to see much more of it in the future. That was part of the reason why Choose looked to recognise these areas specifically in the recent Choose Mobile Awards 2022 - inclusion and environmental policies are becoming increasingly important for an industry with the potential to create huge changes in the long term.

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

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