Levelling up Digital Divides: it’s not just about infrastructure

What is the digital divide? Wikipedia describes it as “the gap between those able to benefit from the digital age and those who are not.”

Most commonly this is interpreted as whether people have access to the internet or not, and whether that access is convenient enough and of a decent enough quality to use in the many ways modern society demands. And those demands have expanded exponentially during the pandemic, as so many aspects of life went online, intensifying the impact of digital divisions. 

Therefore, amid economic recovery plans and policies to level up, we can include the UK government’s aims to expand digital infrastructure, 5G and full fibre across the country. This investment and expansion of digital infrastructure is important, especially where some rural areas still lack connections or are operating on wires that cannot deliver speeds fast enough to allow any streaming or video calls. Yet it ignores lessons from the pandemic about the complexity of digital divisions. 

Prior to the first lockdown here in the UK, the peak demand for residential internet services occurred in the evening when households are streaming entertainment services like Netflix. Therefore, broadband download speeds at that time of day were benchmarked against the speeds promised by the internet service providers to their customers to determine performance and quality of service.

However, our research shows that in Spring 2020, patterns of demand altered significantly in most of the country. Demand, slowdown due to this demand creating network congestion, and frustration with such poor reliability of service speeds, were all greater during working hours, such as between 9:00-11:00 in the morning. 

Furthermore, the new pattern of demand could be found not only in download speeds, but also upload speeds, which are rarely highlighted in speed and performance management. Yet the reasons are clear. The mass uptake of video-conferencing by those working (and learning) from home for meetings and other social interactions with colleagues, as well as the constant need to upload work to remote servers and networks resulted in an extreme demand that had never existed before. 

To put this in perspective, only about 5% of employed people in the UK worked primarily from home in 2019, but in April 2020, this jumped to 47% – almost half the working population. Extreme demand for quality internet services during working hours was inevitable. 

Yet the other half the UK’s working population still had to go to work or were furloughed. These people may not have been complaining about connectivity, but neither could they benefit from quality internet infrastructure and services even if such were available.

We analysed clusters of Local Authorities’ experienced upload speeds during the spring 2020 lockdown and how they correlated with economic indicators for those authorities, such as occupations and numbers furloughed.

Our results showed that areas of the country with relatively slow and unreliable internet services were not those with the highest percentages of people put on furlough. Increased demand for digital services such as Zoom and network congestion occurred in these areas where, and perhaps because, occupations were more economically resilient. They were able to continue operating despite the pandemic.

Conversely, some areas with reliably high broadband speeds suffered economically as reflected in high furlough numbers. These areas were characterised by fewer jobs in occupations, such as technology and business services, that would enable workers to be productive at home. 

This tells a story that is about more than just having the skills to use digital technology, it is about having the skills to undertake productive, paid work using digital technology. If digital divisions are to be addressed to enable places not just to be connected, but also to gain economic benefits and resilience, then there needs to be a recognition of these different sorts of digital divisions.  

The impacts of the pandemic may be waning, but the working from home lifestyle they have introduced is not going away for many businesses and organisations, nor is the demand for fast and reliable upload and download speeds during working hours. Better infrastructure, although necessary, cannot boost the economic resilience of places on its own, where the industrial structure does not align with occupations that incorporate the digital skills and capabilities to work from home. This complex web of digital and socio-economic divides needs to be incorporated into our thinking of local economies and government priorities.

Inclusive group interactions: online or in person?

I recently published a paper on the intersections, or as it turned out, the divergence between three different levels of digital divide. The first level is about infrastructure and having fast enough internet connections. A bit like accessibility in transport. The second is about skills to use the required software. The third is whether digital technology enables people to be more productive or resilient or gain from the use of the technology.

The first two divides include the uneven distribution of infrastructure and technical capabilities across the population. The last is more a question of some forms of work or knowledge being recognised as valuable, useful, and worthy of remuneration even when forced online. Other forms of knowledge and work are designated essential but only possible in person, whilst still others are temporarily disposable (e.g. via furlough).

Another way to think about digital divides is to consider how they map onto aspects of social justice such as I am researching for a different project; these include distribution, recognition, and epistemic (or knowledge).

For example, as we slowly emerge from a world where social interactions were forced online in order to make decisions about whether we will return in person or continue to use digital technologies, will these interactions become more or less just?

I am not referring to jobs and occupations, as I was in the paper mentioned above, but rather the advantages and disadvantages of holding meetings, workshops, coffee breaks, and conferences online or in person as this becomes a matter of employer, organisational or individual choice. Similar choices are being made for many other group interactions which had unexpectedly switched to a screen during the pandemic; from charity committees to book clubs, from religious services to exercise classes.

So how did the online switch influence how just these interactions became in comparison to their previous formats?

In terms of distribution, some have the internet connections, data contracts and devices to support video-conferencing platforms. Some do not. Some find using the software easy and some difficult. However, many would note that spatial, temporal, and cost barriers were much reduced. People could meet, discuss, worship, or exercise together with little concern for distance. People could schedule activities without the travel time, fitting in online interactions between other responsibilities. And the cost to interact online is usually much lower.

In terms of recognition, some found it easier to put across their needs, wants, and points of view. Perhaps they could raise their virtual hand or comment in a chat box. Yet for others, the lack of body language, the unnatural uniformity of grids of faces make it much harder to recognise the expressions of others or to express oneself. Whilst some blossom in the odd combination of distance and intimacy that online interactions afford, others shrink from it, often unnoticed, such that their potential contribution to the team or club or congregation goes unrecognised.

Finally, whose knowledge is gained and whose is lost? What is spoken and what left unsaid? And even if different voices and views are heard, whose are valued and whose ignored? In some cases, knowledge has been gained from more diverse participants, perhaps due to reduced distance, time and cost barriers. In other cases, not only have previous attendees been excluded due to distributional issues of infrastructure and skills, but also knowledge is exchanged differently. Online social interactions reduce the ability to share non-verbal knowledge. There is a deficit of side conversations, informal commentary and one-to-one conversations on the way in and the way out.

The justice of online group interactions is context-dependent and interactions in person can also include or exclude in different ways. And yet, just as there are multiple levels of digital divide to consider, multiple aspects of justice should inform our decisions. Whilst many point to what are often net gains made in distributional justice from going online, the recognition and knowledge aspects of justice suggest a more complex and nuanced balance sheet as we make these tricky choices over how to meet and interact in the future.