National strategy needed to ensure Dorset is not left behind in the digital world

Dorset Council has welcomed a new independent report calling for a national strategy on digital inclusion.

For the past decade the council has led many local initiatives to help get people online – from rolling out superfast broadband to nearly 80,000 premises, gifting devices to people in need and creating a community of digital champions.

However, without further national support, the council’s ability to help bridge the digital divide and ensure no one is left behind is limited.

The council supports the House of Lords’ cross-party Communications and Digital Committee’s call for the government to produce a digital inclusion strategy.

As a rural county, Dorset is particularly affected by some of the main barriers to digital inclusion.

Age is one of the main reasons that 2.4 million people in the UK still lack even the most basic of digital skills – the 2021 Census showed Dorset has a much higher proportion of residents who are aged over 65 years (29.6%) compared with regional and national averages.

Poor connectivity affects rural areas more than urban areas.

Although 97% of Dorset premises now have superfast broadband, the county falls behind when it comes to gigabit-capable speeds.  Just over 36% of Dorset premises can get gigabit-capable speeds – compared to 84.8% in neighbouring Bournemouth, Christchurch, Poole (BCP) Council area. (Source: Think Broadband)

The picture is even more stark when it comes to mobile connectivity, with some parts of Dorset having among the worst coverages in the UK.

And like everywhere in the country, Dorset residents are being impacted by the cost-of-living crisis, which is seeing people unable to afford their internet and mobile phone bills and buy devices.

Dorset Council’s digital champion, Cllr Jill Haynes, said: “We very much welcome the Communications and Digital Committee’s report.

“I was very pleased that the committee recognised the role local authorities can play in helping people to become more digitally included and that we are already doing many of the things they recommend – such as community digital champions and recycling our devices to help people in need.

“We are grateful for the support the government has given to Dorset, especially when it comes to broadband connectivity through the national Project Gigabit and Gigabit voucher schemes.

“However, we agree that a more strategic direction and funding is needed if we are truly able to tackle all the barriers that lead to digital exclusion.

“Digital offers up so many benefits to the economy and to an individual’s well-being that it’s essential that no-one is left behind in this increasingly digital world.”

The House of Lords committee highlighted how digital exclusion is affecting millions of people today.

More than 2 million people lack even the most basic of digital skills and more than half of these are aged 75 and over. Another 10.2 million lack all the skills needed to get by in today’s digital world.

Around 1.7 million households have no broadband or mobile internet at all, and 1.4 million households are struggling to pay their broadband bills and 2.3 million struggled with mobile bills.

In Dorset, nearly a third of residents are digitally excluded because of a lack of skills, poor connectivity or affordability.

The House of Lords committee is calling for the government to address:

  • Cost of living support, including removing VAT off social tariffs and work with businesses to provide internet vouchers. It also says public organisations should recycle their devices – something Dorset Council already does through its Digital Doorway scheme.
  • Invest in basic digital skills – by making basic digital skills learning more prominent in schools and adult learning courses. Introduce more community-based learning for adults. The latter is already provided by Dorset Council through its volunteer digital champion scheme.
  • Boost digital inclusion hubs where more people can get help online, including libraries. Dorset Council’s library staff are trained embedded digital champions who can help visitors with digital enquiries.
  • Future-proof public services and ensure digitally excluded groups are not further marginalised in future.
  • Prioritise telecoms competition – ensure broadband roll-out plans do not disadvantage smaller alt net companies that usually offer more of a community service.

The report concludes: “Digital exclusion remains a serious problem. Although there has been progress in recent years, millions of people still cannot access the internet or use it adequately.

“Cost of living challenges have made a bad situation worse for people who struggle to afford internet access. The need for government action is becoming increasingly urgent.”

People can read the Communications and Digital committee’s report here: Digital exclusion and the cost of living – Committees – UK Parliament

The government has until 29 August to respond.

With over 100 members any business in Dorset can join Dorchester Chamber for business from £60p/a (no VAT).

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