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The Digital Divide Narrows, but by how much in Highland Perthshire?

Photo Credit: Oleg Magni

The UK’s digital divide narrowed during the coronavirus pandemic, as people have gone online to escape the lockdown, Ofcom research suggests.

The proportion of homes without internet access appears to have fallen from 11% in March 2020, as the UK entered lockdown, to 6% of homes – around one and a half million – in March this year.

Adults with previously limited digital skills have embraced online shopping, digital banking and video calling friends and relatives – while younger people acted as IT support, helping older or less digitally-confident friends and relatives get connected.

But despite many more people taking a leap of faith into the online world, for those households who remain offline, digital exclusion during lockdown is likely to be more disempowering than ever.

The findings are among those reported in Ofcom’s annual studies into the media use and attitudes of adults in the UK, and of children and their parents.

A report from the government’s communications regulator, Ofcom, finds that the nationwide digital dive is narrowing.

Communities such as the towns and villages across Highland Perthshire make up are apart of the movement towards a greater connection to the online world.

Now community council’s are connecting online in a more accessible forum than before with zoom meetings.

However, Ofcom’s findings are noticing a growing disparity of people who are connected finding themselves digitally excluded.

A spokesperson for Ofcom said: “Groups least likely to have home internet access are those aged 65+ (18% without access), lower income households (11% without access), and the most financially vulnerable (10% without access). Almost half of adults who remain offline say they find the internet too complicated (46%), or it holds no interest for them (42%). For others (37%), a lack of equipment is a barrier.

“Additionally, around one in five children (17%) did not have consistent access to a suitable device for their online home-learning. This increased to 27% of children from households classed as most financially vulnerable.”

Although, the percentage of homes nationwide without internet access has dropped from 11% in March 2020, as the UK entered lockdown, to 6% of homes – around one and a half million – in March this year.

Now a £579m project from the Scottish Government is looking to connect homes in Highland Perthshire with a broadband connection.

But the project is heading towards some setbacks, such as a four-year delay and exclusion of some communities.

Highland Perthshire Communities Partnership’s project officer, Ian Bailey, explained: “Because the contract appears to have been awarded on a best-efforts basis, there doesn’t appear to be any legal commitment from any party to insist that every property in the northern area that was assessed as needing better broadband will be included.

“So the current situation is BT looks although it is now given a provisional update as to which properties it will include.

“And that for large areas of Highland Perthshire, there are still a significant number of properties which will not be included in R100; which after five years is pretty disappointing.”

For homes who are expected to be missed by the project, the Scottish Government is offering vouchers to help compensate the installing for homeowners themselves.

Scotland’s Connectivity Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, said: “Digital Connectivity has played a vital role in supporting our efforts to keep people safe during the Covid-19 lockdown and will be pivotal in plans for our strategic economic recovery from the pandemic.

Adding: “But Scotland has some of the most challenging locations anywhere in Europe for providing telecoms infrastructure and I have always been clear that additional measures may still be needed to provide superfast access to some of the hardest-to-reach areas.

“That is why we have been developing plans in parallel with the main infrastructure investment to ensure our 100% commitment is met, and the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme offering a level of funding far exceeding that of any other broadband voucher scheme currently in operation within the UK, will ensure that everyone can access and benefit from this world-leading digital capability.” 

Mr Bailey added: “Now, what the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme enables is, property owners with that voucher then are given an opportunity to look for alternative suppliers.

“So the Scottish Governments created a list of potential companies who would offer a potential broadband service, it could be fibre, it could be wireless network or it could be something else.

“The challenge is if you’ve been excluded from the BT contract, it’s highly likely that it’s going to cost a lot more than five thousand pounds to get a broadband service to you as an individual broadband provider.

“These smaller communities have to come together to aggerate their vouchers.

“And that really is the only way of basically bringing a high speed broadband service collectively.”

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