Digital exclusion requires education as well as 'free' broadband

LEEDS City Council have proposed a series of radical measures to combat digital exclusion among deprived residents in the city, including the provision of free broadband and the lending of tablets.

The measures are intended to bring internet access to some 90,000 adults, who are either "offline and/or lack basic digital skills", and who are likely to be "disabled, unemployed, on a low income or have low literacy and numeracy levels".

The Council expect that, by doing this, £44 million would be added to the Leeds economy in 10 years, while the report on which the recommendations were based estimates that £14 billion would be added to the national economy if the UK population were 100% digitally included.

However, while similar measures - including subsidies for broadband access - have been suggested and even offered in the past, it's unlikely they'll be successful without the digital education that will enable people to make the most of them.

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It's also unlikely that they'll be picked up by the Government and implemented as a national policy. This is largely because Ofcom and the Government are generally reluctant to impose price caps on suppliers, which is essentially what Leeds City Council are proposing.

In their second recommendation, they "invite suppliers to provide digital connectivity to its social housing tenants on a trial basis".

They state that this connectivity will be "free of charge to the end user (i.e. the Social Housing tenants)", yet they also state that it will be "free of charge to Leeds City Council" as well.

In other words, they expect suppliers to pay for providing "around 800 residential dwellings" with free broadband for "a period of at least 18 months", something which only the most socially conscientious provider would consider.

Some suppliers - such as BT with their Basic package - do offer a subsidised service for people on benefits, yet up until now not one has gone so far as to pledge a willingness to give away broadband for free.

One or two may be willing to collaborate with Leeds Council on their proposals, since these involve only a trial for the time being, but it's unlikely that any would be ready to commit to supplying free internet access on a permanent basis.

Tablets

As such, it's more probable that the kind of recommendations being made by the Council will remain as local measures rolled out on a council-to-council or voluntary basis.

However, this isn't to say that these aren't good recommendations, especially since they show a way forward for cutting down on the 13% of the UK population who had never used the internet as of 2014.

And besides the free broadband access for people in social housing, the Council are also proposing a tablet lending scheme.

As the name suggests, this involves libraries providing excluded individuals with tablets on loan. Besides offering them the opportunity to shop online and apply for jobs (assuming they're jobseekers), these loaned devices will also enable them to develop their digital skills and build their enthusiasm for digital technology.

It's via such schemes that the Council expects to add some £44 million to the city's economy over ten years, as illustrated by the table below:

Source: Leeds City Council

As with the free-broadband proposal, this is still in the trial stage, however, with 100 tablets about to be loaned out as part of a "full pilot scheme".

Education

Once again, this suggests that the measure may not even get off the ground, yet a more serious question is how the people receiving the tablets on loan will be educated to use them effectively.

Judging by their report, the Council seems to assume that simply providing the tablet will be enough to train formerly excluded individuals. This is an assumption which appears to neglect the complexity surrounding such issues as cybersecurity, online banking and piracy, all of which require governments, charities and other groups to invest a considerable amount of time and money before even included members of the public are sufficiently clued up to them.

The Council's two proposals on addressing the matter of education appear to be restricted simply to the matter of identifying who is in need of education, rather than of how they can be educated adequately and cost-effectively.

For example, in recommendation 10, they highlight two goals: "the identification of communities most at risk of digital exclusion", and "the support of local groups and organisations in the delivery of digital skills training to residents in their communities".

Once again, as with the provision of free broadband, the second goal mostly means they're expecting other parties to step forward and volunteer to train digitally excluded adults, at which point they'll offer some currently undefined "support".

This offer of assistance may be reasonable enough, but in expecting others to bring the ideas and perform the actual legwork, it shows a considerable lack of initiative and leadership.

And given that broadband access and devices are nearly meaningless without the digital literacy to use them, this could prove a major stumbling block to the Council's plans to reduce digital exclusion over the coming months and years.