Ofcom report shows vulnerable people are disconnected from digital society

16 Jan 2019

Image: © Budimir Jevtic/Stock.adobe.com

UK regulator warns that people who are already marginalised are being left behind in a growing digital landscape.

In a new study which examines inclusion and access to technology, UK communications regulator Ofcom paints a picture of an unequal digital society both in level of understanding and access to equipment. While the growth of the internet presents a world of discovery and access for many, vulnerable groups such as the elderly, those living with mental illness and disability, and those with low incomes are left by the wayside.

The digital divide

In the Access and Inclusion report, the telecoms regulator found that vulnerable people are often mis-sold products that are not appropriate for their needs and are less likely to know how to lock down a good broadband package deal, for example. Essential services such as broadband or a mobile data package are also unaffordable for many.

30pc of households in the most financially insecure group surveyed do not have any internet access, while just 8pc only had access through a mobile device. Ofcom said: “The most financially vulnerable people are less likely to have all of the main communications services – landline, mobile, broadband and pay TV.

“Of the people in this group who do have a broadband connection, a smaller than average proportion has access to superfast broadband.”

Financial struggles hit vulnerable groups

Approximately 10pc of adults in the UK said they found it difficult to pay for communications services at some point. 34pc of people with a long-term mental illness experienced hardship when it came to affording these services.

Smartphone take-up among the over-75s in the UK is on the up, but this group generally trended towards using larger devices such as desktops to browse the internet. A little under half of this demographic reported they had no home broadband.

There is a large disparity in smartphone ownership between people with disabilities and the general population surveyed. According to the findings, 53pc of people with disabilities own a smartphone, compared to 81pc of the general population, while 67pc of those with disabilities use the internet vs the general figure of 92pc. The report said: “Those who are not online may not be able to participate as fully in society as they would wish,”

Approximately half of those with disabilities said they felt confident in understanding the language used by communications providers, as opposed to 75pc in the general population. Those with learning disabilities were likely to use comms services in a similar way to the general population, while people living with a visual impairment were most likely to say they were limited in their use of communications services.

People with disabilities are also more likely than able-bodied people to be over 64 and live in the lowest three socioeconomic groups by income. They’re also reportedly twice as likely to live alone.

Next steps from Ofcom

Considering the migration of many essential administrative and government services to the internet, this accessibility gap can create further issues. As The Register points out, almost a tenth of families surveyed who were eligible for tax credits could not use them due to a lack of knowledge, income or access to services.

Ofcom said it will increase monitoring to identify best practice examples that it can use in improving accessibility to internet and telecoms services. It also plans to make regulated on-demand content more accessible, as well as introduce consumer protections from dangerous pricing practices, particularly in the fixed broadband market.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects