Digitally divided

This is the second of (I hope) four posts coming out of the Powerful Voices roundtable I attended earlier this month. The first was a resource-dump for concepts we discussed there; the third and fourth will tackle major issues raised. This one is about the divide between digital haves and have-nots, and what the future looks like for connectivity.

Back in Norwich, the newspapers where I used to work have just launched a campaign to back a bid for better broadband. Areas of rural Norfolk suffer badly from a lack of coverage – businesses relying on connectivity to function, to process payments or to do work, find themselves crippled by slow or unusable broadband access. Mobile coverage can be patchy. 3G is a luxury. There is an ongoing fight for change.

It can be very, very easy to forget that not everyone is online. When everyone around you is eyeballs-deep in social media and those without smartphones are a rarity, the statistics on digital inclusion are startling. According to the ONS [pdf], 27% of UK households have no access to the internet at home, and 9.2m adults have never used the internet.

Those figures are likely to fall. But they’re likely to fall faster in areas where broadband speeds are high, where there is free internet access for those who can’t afford a home connection, and within certain demographics – people who can afford smartphones even if a home broadband connection is out of reach, for instance, or young people in house shares who can split the costs of connection if not of hardware.

For some rural communities, fast broadband is unlikely to come from the telephone companies. Despite promises to the contrary, a fair few Norfolk businesspeople are bitterly aware that telecoms giants go where the profit is – and that means not laying cables and updating infrastructure in areas where the usage wouldn’t pay for the work to be done.

And that profit motive has other unpleasant effects. The fight for net neutrality is being fought much more loudly on the other side of the Atlantic – but it’s a growing issue in the UK too. The introduction of a tiered system in which those who can pay get their websites served faster than those who can’t threatens the free proliferation of information across the net, and threatens to limit access still further for those who can’t pay. The internet has democratised processes of creation and dissemination; any move towards a tiered web will move us away from open access; and the future for net neutrality in the UK remains unclear.

Already there are communities everywhere taking matters into their own hands. The Open Rights Group is one of several organisations fighting to protect net neutrality and working to protect other digital rights. Remote Cumbrian villages are raising money and building their own broadband networks. And it is technically and technologically possible to share your wifi connection with your neighbours – and to drop free wifi networks over wide areas, like the (now sadly defunct) network that blanketed Norwich with free connectivity a few years ago.

But we’re not there yet. Any project tackling social change – like the ones rising out of Powerful Voices – has to consider the implications of the digital divide, whether they’re trying to solve the problems it creates (by replacing lost library services with online access, for instance) or trying to use digital methods to influence issues that also affect those who find it difficult to get online (like volunteer schemes for the unemployed, or community projects looking for professionals).

It was fascinating and eye-opening that the suggestions that struck home with the Powerful Voices crowd were not so much the online ideas – they already knew they needed to be where their communities are, use whichever social networks they already use, and fragment their work across multiple platforms to reach people. It was the offline thoughts that got a big response. One idea, that if your community hangs out in a coffee shop then you should go put some flyers there for your project, prompted a discussion about how difficult it is sometimes to remember that there are offline ways of connecting with people, too.

There are still ways of reaching and empowering people in remote communities who aren’t online. And local newspapers are still one of those ways. The physical, newsprint paper finds its way into houses where the internet does not; its distribution networks, though they are under threat, already work to put it in the hands of physically and socially isolated people. It’s a symbol, a mark of social belonging, and a link to the wider world. Local papers can and do campaign for their communities, using their established clout and power to fight for what’s right for them.

That means, sometimes, a newspaper fighting for something that could threaten its bottom line – when what matters to its readers is something that could indirectly mean the print paper’s circulation falls. Better broadband and connectivity isn’t going to mean an immediate sales drop – but as more and more remote communities come fully online, the need for the newspaper as a wider community champion link will decrease.