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.

Broadband in Extreme Demand

Resilience is often described by a number of other words beginning with ‘R’. Resistance or Robustness are two. These refer to infrastructure that is designed or an activity that is organised to avoid risk and withstand the expected impact or disruption. Redundancy and Replication are two more. These refer to equivalent or at least parallel alternatives that enable the same outcomes, even if not by the same means. In transport, it could be an alternative route or another mode that still enables access to the same destination. Finally, there is Response and Recovery, how quickly action is taken and life returns to either its previous ‘normal’ or stabilises into a new ‘normal’.

As I explored in my recently awarded doctoral thesis, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have a major role to play in resilience to severe weather events. Broadband networks are often more robust than transport infrastructure and access to some activities such as work can be replicated online. Opportunities for communication are also enhanced to speed recovery.

Yet the ability of ICT to play these roles may be constrained by the interactions between supply and demand, availability and quality. Broadband supply and availability can be limited if there are not the physical connections to support superfast services, or certain providers simply do not operate. Yet even where the supply is available, broadband quality is affected by increased demand – something the industry calls ‘contention’ or slowdown in busy periods. Usually this happens due to entertainment, and the daily peak tends to be in the evenings, when streaming video content is most popular. Other times, such as during major sporting events, capacity can be managed to some extent by Internet Service Providers.

In contrast, my research was designed to test if contention could be detected when internet activities are in unusually high demand because household members are unexpectedly home due to extreme weather events. Thus, I analysed data comprising 5 years of broadband speeds, from 2012-2016, in England and Wales, which was provided by Speedchecker Ltd, a private company that allows internet users to check their own broadband upload / download speeds, and stores every speed-check with a timestamp and geolocation. Using multilevel modelling to control for supply side variation, I regressed download speeds against daily weather records to assess how more severe weather affects contention experienced at the neighbourhood level. My results confirmed that winter weather and storm-level winds have significant, albeit small, negative effects on broadband speeds.

Yet these effects are likely to have been an underestimate – sensitivity testing suggested greater contention in subsets of the data designed to control for uneven growth in average broadband speeds or exclude spatial extremes in service. There are also divergences between weather parameters and weather impacts, with the latter dependent upon confounding variables like what type of transport infrastructure is affected and the length of advance warning. Also, the noise in this big data source and the subtleties of the assessment meant it was not easy to identify who was most likely to avoid travel risks and work from home during severe weather or where the most telecommuting activity occurs.

In contrast, we now have an ongoing disruption where everyone who can has been told to use ICT in order to be more resilient, avoid a very different type of risk, and replicate their productive activities as much as possible until we can recover. How is the quality and level of service of broadband in the UK coping with what is likely to be the most extreme level of demand it has ever experienced? I’m planning to find out!

A Future of Transport Equity?

I’ve been thinking about transport equity this month. I don’t mean transport poverty, although I’ve read some interesting literature on that too recently. But transport poverty is now and transport equity, or rather inequity, is what we are building into the future of mobility through our investment and policy decisions.

Three areas where we might be steering towards future transport inequity have been on my mind.

The first is electric vehicles. Many see a transition to electric vehicles as the solution to a low-carbon future. Yet my current research explores how mass adoption of plug-in electric vehicles might be delivered when at least a third of car drivers have no ability to park and charge their vehicles at their homes. Many of these people, who may be living in flats or small terraces or rented accommodation without private parking are unlikely to be able to afford the purchase price of battery electric vehicles anyway. Yet even if costs come down and the second-hand market grows, their lack of driveways and garages mean they would still fail to benefit from the ultra-low refuelling costs of slow-charging overnight using home electricity. There are solutions, and we are researching their social sustainability, but it is hard to see how state subsidies for private electric vehicle purchase will lead us to an equitable future of mobility. (Never mind the implications for congestion, urban environments, lithium mining…)

The second transport, or, more accurately, access equity issue that I’ve been mulling over is online access. Online access was a big part of my doctoral research, and as I defended my thesis this month, the external examiner acknowledged that I’d mentioned the equity aspect of online access, but questioned whether I addressed it directly enough. Indeed, the more I think about my analysis of the potential resilience and sustainability of telecommuting as an option to access work activities during transport disruption, the more I realise that it is an option for far too few, and those few tend to be among the more privileged. It does not have to be that way. Changes in government and corporate policy to promote computer skills and allow remote and autonomous working could enable telecommuting to be available to many more sectors of society. But there must also be investment in infrastructure that delivers both availability and quality online access to all – and I’m not sure the current preoccupation with 5G allows that.

Finally, it’s been hard to ignore recent headlines on HS2. Whatever you think about the political agenda or ballooning budget, a new high speed rail service will mainly serve relatively wealthy commuters, as, like telecommuting, rail commuters tend to be found among those with higher incomes. Especially if they’re travelling to benefit from London’s already bloated job market. One can’t help but agree with those who suggest the money might better be spent on local transport, reduced rail fares, or any number of other things. Unless there’s plenty in the coffers for both HS2 and the rest of the wish list, you’d be hard pressed to argue that this is socially-progressive infrastructure investment.

In conclusion, I am not against high-speed rail, 5G or other advanced information and communication technologies, nor electric vehicles and charging systems. Yet if this is all that policy is promoting or institutional actors are investing in, it will leave large portions of society behind and create the transport and access poverty of the future. Instead, I’m advocating for a bit more attention to transport equity when planning the future of mobility and accessibility.

You say Congestion, I say Contention…

‘Transport’ describes the systems and methods for connecting people and places, goods and services, activities and opportunities. We study, plan, fund, and operate transport networks as a means to support economic growth and social interaction. It is a utility, a public good.

Substitute Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for ‘Transport’ in the sentences above, and they still make sense. But ICT is not a direct replacement for transport. For example, increased use of ICT by businesses can result in longer-distance if less frequent business trips, and whilst shoppers may visit fewer stores, more delivery trucks are on our roads carrying goods ordered online.1 More generally, ICT loosens the bonds between commuting options and costs, and work and residential location choices, as the availability of local services, amenities, and social networks become more important in deciding where to live.2 Thus, virtual access complements physical access, and it may be more useful to view ICT as an alternative way to connect, another choice or manifestation of travel behaviour.

Like any mode of transport, the attractiveness and convenience of mobile or fixed ICT for making connections depends upon the quality of infrastructure and services in a particular geographical area. For fixed broadband, for example, digital accessibility depends upon characteristics like what type of connections are available in a given location, the length of any hybrid copper line, how providers manage different connections, and how connections are wired.3

Thus, like any other transport system, ICT networks comprise links and nodes with variable accessibility. Still, differences are worth noting. ICT users find routing much more fluid than do train passengers or car drivers or even cyclists planning how to reach to their destination. Speeds for ICTs are not fixed, but how they will impact on performance is often obscure.

Meanwhile, again like transport systems, demand-side factors can affect capacity. Transport planners may not be aware, but there are peak times for internet activity as much as for travel. OfCom, the ICT regulator in the UK, calls this dynamic “contention”. Basically, contention increases when too many people are trying to access too much data on the network at the same time and broadband download speeds fall from their maximum rates. The scale of contention also varies by type of connection technology, just as the scale of a traffic jam varies by the number of lanes on the carriageway. However, unlike the travel peak that occurs between 7am and 9am, contention is usually at its worst between 8pm and 10pm, due largely to video streaming.4

However, and this is where transport planners should take note, contention can occur at other times. Unexpected spikes in contention have been observed at unexpected times due to mass streaming of sporting and entertainment events that occur outside of ‘prime time’.5

My own research estimates significant contention in response to certain severe weather events, which may indicate an increase in internet activity for work purposes or telecommuting. On public holidays, it may suggest that outings are cancelled in favour of watching movies at home. In either case, such contention offers insight into the flexibility of travel behaviour, and the benefits of that flexibility.

Unlike congestion, which carries the risks of incidents and accidents as well as delays, contention need not discourage remote access. Slow download speeds are unlikely to result in the hours of unproductive time a commuter might experience due to unusual levels of congestion, closures, and cancellations, making ICTs the wisest modes during period of severe weather. True, high winds can knock down power lines as soon as block rail tracks with trees. Floods can cause water to seep into telephone cabinets as well as making roads impassable. Yet ICT infrastructure is generally more resilient to severe weather impacts than transport infrastructure.6 And newer broadband technologies not only deliver higher speeds, but are even more resilient than those that preceded them.

In conclusion, as society moves from the motor age into the digital age, ICT will become ever more important for accessing goods and services and for making connections. Transport planners should be incorporating ICTs into their forecasts and appraising them for their potential return on investment, and their ability, in contrast to other modes, to reduce risk, maintain productivity, improve flexibility, and change travel behaviour.

 

  1. Andreev  P, Salomon, Ilan and Pliskin, Nava. (2010) Review: State of teleactivities. Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies 18: 17. And various other articles!
  2. Lyons G. (2015) Transport’s digital age transition. The Journal of Transport and Land Use 8: 1-19.
  3. Tranos E, Reggiani, A., Nijkamp, P. (2013) Accessibility of cities in the digital economy. Cities 30: 59-67. I am now focusing on fixed broadband technology, although there are also parallels in mobile technology.
  4. (2017) UK Home Broadband Performance. UK fixed-line broadband performance: Research Report. 1-82.
  5. (2014) Infrastructure Report 2014. OfCom, 1-188.
  6. Dawson R. (2016) Chapter 4: Infrastructure. UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017: Evidence Report. Committee on Climate Change, 1-111.

 

Visions: the potential in probabilities

On 28 February, the RTPI / TPS Transport Planning Network, with CILT and DAC Beechcroft, hosted an event to discuss the RAND Corporation report ‘Travel in Britain 2035’.

The report offers three alternative visions of the future of mobility, which are intended to cover the spectrum of probability, rather than a forecast of reality. One of the authors, Charlene Rohr, explained to the assembled professionals that the aim of their project was to review how emerging technologies might influence our transport systems, and envision the multiple potential futures that could occur.

Why carry out this research? The one certainty in this crystal ball gazing is that technologies affecting transport, which have been relatively stable for decades, are now undergoing significant change. This could transform not only how we travel, but also our lifestyles, and even societies. Imagining visions of the future can help us prepare for them.

It is not only the giants of the Tech world that realise this. Did you see Ford’s Superbowl ad? The car company is promoting a vision of mobility for the future where it would be selling a lot more than just cars – perhaps shifting towards mobility as a service. It seems that car manufacturers will have to offer different models of ownership, operation and efficiency to stay in the transport game.

Transport planners have to change their tactics too. Cost benefit analyses for infrastructure investment currently calculate 60 years into the future – but technology is changing so quickly that making predictions for 2035 is challenging enough. Transport appraisal has never been much good at distributional analysis – considering how investment choices impact upon different parts of society – but if we want to avoid the report’s dystopian vision of a ‘Digital Divide’, then we need to correct that fault quickly. More investment will also be needed in adaptable infrastructure, which avoids locking us into 60 years of technology or behaviour that will be obsolete in 20.

Meanwhile, a lot of the visioning buzz is around fully autonomous vehicles (AVs), which will probably be electric and shared as well. The report’s ‘Driving Ahead’ scenario focuses on this technology, whilst the UK Government is investing heavily to be a world leader in AV development. The Transport Systems Catapult offers some thoughts on this future, summarising the many benefits of going driver-less.

However, as the discussion ranged at the event, it is clear that it is not only the difficulty of transition that may threaten a driver-less society. Land use planners face a capacity conundrum. If AVs result in much less parking adjacent to homes and commercial uses, what should that land be used for instead? WSP|PB had a panellist at the event to discuss some of the answers they’ve envisioned. But the vehicles themselves still need to be off-road some of the time, for storage and maintenance. Where is that going to happen? How do streets need to be re-configured for picking up and dropping off instead of parking? If the reduced travel cost and additional productive time offered by AVs attract more use than the additional road capacity their efficient movement frees up, is the answer to build more road infrastructure?

The RAND report specifically ignores the need for new infrastructure. But even roads aside, all the scenarios require more electricity and ICT infrastructure, built to be as resilient as possible in the face of frequent severe weather and other disruptions.

Yet it is not all doom and gloom. Freight drivers may not be out of a job if the complicated work at either end of the journey becomes ever more involved with shared loading and consolidated delivery. Children may be able to play on the streets again as space is freed from parking and AVs are trusted with their safety. And if policy makers, planners, and transport practitioners are proactive about standards, regulations, taxation and investment, we can push the future to better resemble the RAND report’s more utopian ‘Live Local’ vision, where road user charging replaces fuel duty and mobility is not only a service, but an equitable one.