Comment: Internet access should be treated as an essential utility rather than a convenience

Doctor Hannah Holmes. left, and Dr Gemma Burgess, both of the Cambridge Center for Housing & Planning Research at the University of Cambridge, say that to improve access to online opportunities, housing must support digital inclusion

Digital exclusion – characterized by a lack of access to a good internet connection, lack of access to a suitable device, lack of motivation to go online or difficulties with digital literacy – affects millions of people of all ages UK.

The consequences of digital exclusion are serious. Digitally excluded people may find it difficult to apply for a job, lack the skills needed for the job, or be excluded from online learning opportunities. Not being able to log in creates barriers to managing finances without being able to track funds through online banking, and those with low levels of digital literacy may face an increased risk of being harmed online. .

Importantly, there is a close relationship between poverty and digital exclusion: low-income households are much less likely to have broadband at home than high-income households. If we are to overcome digital exclusion, it is essential to recognize and understand the reasons for it and to examine the factors that shape or limit the possibilities to connect. Housing inequality is one such factor.

Housing is important for several reasons: for some people, their address makes it impossible to access broadband at home. For example, living in temporary accommodation can make signing a long broadband contract or paying installation fees unlikely. And some housing types may prevent you from using certain services even if you can connect online, as delivery service providers may not want to deliver to certain high-rise buildings or rural areas.

Housing inequalities can further aggravate digital exclusion, as rising housing costs have led to rising poverty rates, reducing people’s ability to pay for internet access. Indeed, studies by the Cambridge Center for Housing and Planning Research show that when cash is tight, rent, utility bills and other essential expenses are often prioritized over Wi-Fi.

Of course, housing is not the only barrier to broadband access. A bad credit rating can prevent people from getting a broadband deal. For many, paying for broadband is unaffordable. Whatever the cause, those who cannot access broadband at home often have to rely on expensive mobile data. But housing can also be an obstacle to this. Just under 40,000 homes in the UK are in areas that cannot access strong 4G or broadband signals at sufficient speeds.

It’s not just annoying. Digital exclusion has serious repercussions on access to a whole range of opportunities. For example, many housing associations now operate an online bidding process for properties, in which potential tenants must view properties online and apply for them online.

If being online is necessary to fully participate in society – and it increasingly is – internet access should be treated as an essential utility, rather than a convenience or a luxury. We need affordable broadband, alongside an improved supply of high-quality affordable and social housing, and the infrastructure necessary for home broadband access for all communities. The need for homes to be warm, moisture-free and safe places in which people can build their lives has long been recognized. But it is more essential than ever that homes are also digitally connected. We know that digital exclusion exacerbates poverty and, in doing so, contributes to all the negative effects that come with it, including poor health and lower educational outcomes.

To improve access to online opportunities, housing must support digital inclusion.

• Dr Hannah Holmes is a Research Associate at the Cambridge Center for Housing and Planning Research, University of Cambridge

• Dr Gemma Burgess is Director of Research and Director of the Cambridge Center for Housing and Planning Research, University of Cambridge

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