In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the internet has been celebrated as the answer to myriad challenges resulting from the strict nationwide measures to halt the spread of the virus in the UK. With shops and restaurants shuttered and millions of people working and studying from home to facilitate social distancing, more of our everyday lives is taking place online than ever before. It’s a fact we seem to have accepted unproblematically, a happy relief made possible by the historical coincidence of facing a pandemic in the digital age.
But the current crisis is exposing a widening gap between digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ And what’s missing from many of the conversations around digital inequality during lockdown is the immense importance of shared public spaces and human connectivity in closing the digital divide.
For those of us already accustomed to the seamless interweaving of our online and offline lives, broadband providers in the UK promised that their networks could meet the demand of more schooling, working, and playing at home in response to pandemic mitigation strategies. We also know that higher-paid jobs offer more opportunities for telework, and students in low income families face a widening ‘homework gap’ because they can’t complete work online. To address the needs of more precarious internet users, in recent days the Government has reportedly reached agreements with UK telecom companies to lift data caps on broadband plans, forgive or defer unpaid broadband bills during the crisis, and offer lower-cost mobile and landline packages in an effort to get more people online and keep them connected.
But if we read between the headlines, we can clearly see the limits of these plans to democratise internet access. Most of them assume that access occurs in the home and that users have attained a level of digital literacy that allows them to participate fully in a digital-only or majority-digital world.
Today, 6.6 percent of homes in England and Wales still don’t have a decent fixed internet connection, and an estimated 5 million Britons don’t use the internet at all. While those of us with high-speed connections are jostling for adequate bandwidth to stream unlimited high-definition video, many people in Britain remain totally or practically unconnected due to lack of access or lack of digital literacy (or both), and their right to connectivity seems to be finding its way into public policy a little too late.
Last year ‘Broadband for all!’ was an unexpected rallying cry for equality in the UK’s parliamentary election. Broadband isn’t exactly bread and roses, but now, as nearly every aspect of our everyday lives is being pushed online in the interest of public safety, the internet is looking more like the social leveler those campaign promises suggested it could be. In fact, the 2019 manifestos of all three major parties included ambitious national plans to extend broadband, with Conservatives promising an ‘infrastructure revolution’ to include gigabit broadband for every home.
Of course, none of these ambitious plans have been implemented — yet. But this month, just as national internet demand is peaking, the government’s pre-existing Universal Service Obligation (USO) comes into effect, giving people the right to request an affordable and decent broadband connection (of at least 10 mbps), enough to stream a Netflix film. While this right to access will eventually constitute an important attempt at narrowing the digital divide, in the meantime many people on the margins of connectivity have relied on public spaces for low-cost or free connectivity. And these gathering places are now suddenly inaccessible due to the national lockdown to contain the coronavirus.
The Oxford Internet Survey has found that in general, many people use public access points for the internet. Nearly 70 percent of people in Britain use public Wifi, and nearly 20 percent access the internet in libraries. For people on low incomes and with limited digital literacy, these spaces are absolutely vital. They not only provide free access but also offer opportunities for in-person knowledge exchange.
The elderly and the disabled, who have been most severely impacted by both the disease and its mitigation tactics, are also among the least likely to be online. Organizations like AgeUK and many local libraries offer free, in-person computer assistance to help people build confidence with technology, get online and stay online. In Oxford, where I co-lead the Oxfordshire Digital Inclusion Project, a research project looking at the role of public libraries in closing the digital divide, library customers can request assistance from volunteer ‘digital helpers’ to do everything from set up an email account to learn how to Skype with the grandkids. But digital helpers are a successful initiative not because they offer digital expertise, but because they offer human reassurance and individual attention to people with limited internet access and skills. Library staff repeatedly identify patience, empathy, and the ability to be a good listener as the essential qualities of a digital helper. “But as for the technology or the technical skills, it doesn’t have to be very high,” one staff member told me.
The closure of community spaces like libraries disproportionately affects these people who need free access and training to participate in a digitising society. Right now, the prevailing discourse imagines internet connectivity as something that happens at home. But the closure of cafés, restaurants, and libraries will disadvantage people who rely on free or low-cost public Wifi to perform basic online tasks related to schooling, employment, housing, and benefits. With record numbers of people making Universal Credit applications, the demand for free, public digital services among the most disadvantaged is likely to grow.
Alongside existing strategies to enable business-as-usual for the comfortably connected, safeguards are needed to ensure that people who rely on free, public access points and shared spaces to get online are not left behind because Covid-19 has forced us to rely on achieving access in our own homes. We need to prioritise opening these spaces up safely as soon as possible and also coming up with creative solutions to digital isolation. In the U.S., some localities are providing free wifi hotspots on roving buses, which can cover a small community area.
The pervasive digitisation of government services in recent years has necessitated policy interventions like the Universal Service Obligation, but for people currently excluded from home internet access, it’s too little too late. And for those lacking in digital literacy or skills, there is no ‘virtual’ replacement for in-person training and assistance. There has never been a more urgent need to re-evaluate the assumption that access alone will make the internet more democratic or equal. When opportunities for physical connections between people are foreclosed, online inequality will increase. In a broad sense, the Covid-19 pandemic has focused our attention on our human interdependence when it comes to health and healthcare, but the lessons are no less relevant to our relationship to the internet. Digital connectivity is about more than technology alone; it’s also rooted in our shared humanity.
(This piece was originally posted on Medium.)