The Digital Divide – some new data

There’s some interesting new data about the ‘digital divide’ in the guise of the ‘Living Costs and Food Survey 2011′ which is published by the Office for National Statistics as ‘Family Spending‘, published annually.

So here’s their headline statement regarding family spending on Internet access:

“Differences by income were also evident for internet access, with 41 per cent of households in the lowest income group having access to the internet at home, compared with 99 per cent of the highest income households.”


It’s quite startling put like that. I’m happy to take that at face value given that the survey is fairly robust (based on 5,531 households). When I tweeted that data a local BBC journalist tweeted back:

Wow – so councils build apps because they think it’s a better way to access poor people? My immediate reaction was to consider this nonsense but maybe there’s something in it? So let’s dig a bit deeper at the reasons why poor people don’t spend their money on ‘Internet access’.

Ofcom’s Communications Market Report 2012 tells us something about this. They actually have a whole chapter called ‘Smartphones are an important means of accessing the internet‘ which tells us in 2012 42% of people surveyed agreed that ‘my phone is more important to me for accessing the internet than any other device’.

Dig deeper into the same report, a chapter on ‘Telecoms and Networks‘ and we find this headline: ‘Lower-income groups more likely to subscribe to mobile broadband only’. That must be what those councils that David Gregory, above, refers to when they give him their excuses for wasting spending money on apps.

But let’s go beyond that statement and look for more stats that might enhance our understanding of why the poorer you are the less likely you are to have broadband into the home. One reason might be that if you are in the lowest socio-economic group (a ‘DE’) then 25% of you live in household that don’t have a fixed telephone line (usually the main way broadband comes into the home).

Ofcom explain this by saying:

“This is possibly a result of lower-income households not wanting to commit to lengthy minimum-term fixed-line contracts, having trouble passing the credit checks that some providers require, or seeking to control their telephony spend by using prepay mobiles as an alternative to fixed telephony.”

So the poorer you are then you the more likely you are to stick to mobile. However, and here’s the rub, that doesn’t mean you use mobile broadband more than well off people. You use it less. 50% of the highest economic group (‘AB’) use their mobile to access the internet, 27% of DEs.

All of this is quite hard to unravel but perhaps the key figure, simple to understand, is: 43% of of those in DE homes said that they did not have a broadband connection of any kind compared to the UK average of 24%.

It remains that the poorer you are the less likely you are to use the internet. The ONS provide further evidence. Their quarterly internet access data reports show that the less you earn the less likely you have ever used the internet (93% <£200/week compared to 99.6% >£700/week).

As an aside, it also shows that if you live in Walsall/Wolverhampton then 28.1% of you have never accessed the internet. Ever. The highest figure in the UK. Scary.

So there’s some data for you. The digital divide seems, in the main, to be a reflection of the economic divide. Improving access may be key (libraries? ‘surgeries‘?) but surely there are underlying issues of equality that need addressing.

4 thoughts on “The Digital Divide – some new data

  1. Interesting stuff. Whether the data is robust would depend I guess on where those 5K+ households are located? I’m just about to work with a secondary school in Teeside to try to get some data on internet and social media usage amongst students and parents. I find the comment about Councils looking at Apps a tad odd. Apps can be great when they do things that require processing but if councils want to reach residents across different platforms then responsive web design and web apps are probably more effective (and more cost effective) but aren’t as flashy.

  2. I think it’s very dangerous to assume that just because people’s principal means of internet access is via a mobile phone, than they are able or willing to access public services that way. And I am not at all sure that most of the people who access the web via a phone are doing so via what most of use would define as a “smartphone”. You only have to travel on public transport at peak times to see lots of people using Facebook on what look like pretty basic phones. Facebook has done a pretty good job at making sure it’s mobile site works on pretty much any phone, and I reckon that a significant proportion of people who use mobile web access do so for Facebook and little else.

  3. Interesting post…I’d not considered the focus on mobile apps by councils as a way to address the digital divide. I’m not convinced, however, that those at the lower end of the economic scale would be more likely to access services in this way.

    I hate to pimp my own blog on someone else’s, but you may be interested in this series of posts I wrote about the nature of the digital divide in the UK:

    http://infoism.co.uk/blog/category/the-nature-of-the-digital-divide/

    Looks like I might have to write another one looking at the utilisation of mobile apps too.

  4. I agree that most people seem to be able to access Facebook (and Twitter come to that) from their mobiles . This seems to me to point, with a fairly big red hand towards those Channels as being the main route through which councils should expect to be contacted. Strange then that Councils seem almost universally to regard Social media as a marketing/promotional tool rather than a customer service pathway.

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