Access to the internet

Most people now access the internet regularly and easily, but varying levels of broadband access and the speed of data available once connected are becoming important issues. Ofcom research suggests that 73% of UK households have taken up some sort of broadband internet connection via their PCs - mostly through fixed line broadband but some using mobile broadband. This raises three questions. Will the connectivity available be ‘advanced’ enough for people to use the web to its fullest extent? Why are some groups still effectively subject to digital exclusion? And why do some sections of society actively choose to remain ‘offline’? This driver looks at the access and infrastructure issues behind the first two questions.

While past figures indicate that 99% of homes can get some form of broadband connection, currently about 11% (2 million homes) are likely to only have access to a connection speed of at least 512 Kilobits per second (Kbps). This is only a quarter of the 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) regarded as the minimum speed necessary to use ‘next-generation’ services such as BBC iPlayer and get the best social, economic and community value out of the web.

To address this, the previous Labour government aimed to provide up to 2 Mbps capacity to everyone by 2012. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat government elected in 2010 kept this ‘Universal Service Commitment’, but aims to build Europe’s ‘best broadband’ network by 2015, using a combination of speed, coverage, price and choice to assess its quality. As part of this, the government also aims to jump-start new, superfast broadband of at least 24 Mbps, with the private sector delivering two thirds of the physical network, while people in remote communities will be able to apply to a new organisation, Broadband Delivery UK, for public funds to build their own ‘rural hubs’.

Funding for these hubs might involve devolved administrations, local authorities, community groups, charities and local businesses. Local operators will extend the network to individual homes and run the service. However, very remote communities may still have to resort to mobile broadband and the government plans to help by selling off parts of the ‘mobile spectrum’ (radio frequencies reserved for mobiles).

As the UK’s largest broadband provider, BT’s role in this plan is crucial. If BT win the contract to deliver the ‘rural-hub’ infrastructure about 90% of the country could be networked, but the network’s speed and coverage will depend on the level of match-funding that BT decides upon.

What are the implications?

  • The spread of connectivity will make it easier for individuals and civil society organisations to form online communities with others who have similar interests, needs or concerns, including international campaigns and movements.
  • Access to the internet is already regarded by some to be “as indispensable as electricity, gas and water” and is crucial to creating empowered consumers in an information society. These ‘early adopters’ are likely to take up fast broadband quickly and push for improvements.
  • Significantly higher broadband speed and capacity could encourage new levels of digital service innovation and enterprise with many possible applications for civil society organisations, for example, around personalisation.
  • Pricing and business levies are not yet clear for the proposed plans, but the affordability to the customer of various broadband options obviously affects the degree to which they are taken up, especially as many of those suffering digital exclusion are also likely to be facing poverty and inequality. The social cost of having an ongoing digitally excluded minority could increase.
  • Greater broadband access and speeds would allow more of the public to take advantage of the ease of publishing online, putting more of their own content and data on the internet, creating their own news and setting their own agendas through blogging and online forums.
  • Some rural communities are now likely to have to wait as long as 2015 for better broadband provision, though some may then be able to jump from slow dial-up straight to superfast broadband.

Moving Forward

  • Online services risk excluding some groups, and it is therefore important that the sector continues to support and combat any possible marginalisation that may occur.
  • Does your organisation have a policy or strategy in place to ensure it accounts for any possible exclusion that online services might bring?
  • If your membership still lacks internet access – which especially affects those living in rural areas – think about how you can monitor developments. When are they likely to be able to access online services?
  • If you were relying on the broadband availability promised by 2012 in the original universal service commitment you may need to re-plan.
  • Some users in rural areas will use mobile broadband and other methods to get round poor access. Could this be a way for you to work with people in those areas before 2015?

This driver was written for NCVO Third Sector Foresight by Guy Yeomans.

Want to know more?

How online communities can make the net work for the VCS

Published by: NCVO

Date: 2007

Format: Web / PDF

What is it? A report examining the development of online communities and social networking sites and exploring what they might mean for the VCS.

How useful is this? A useful report on how to use new opportunities presented by the Internet.  This report examines how the internet is impacting on people’s relationships with each other and with organisations by looking at the development of online communities and social networking sites and exploring strategic opportunities and risks for VCOs.

Communications Market Report, 2010

Published by: Ofcom

Date: August 2010

Format: PDF

What is it?:  Ofcom's extensive annual reference source covering the UK communications sectors, aimed at industry, policy makers, analysts and consumers. The report contains data and analysis on broadcast television and radio, broadband and fixed/mobile telephony. It also offers insights into how people are using the internet and converged devices to access audio-visual and audio content.

How useful is this? It’s a great ‘snapshot’ of what the UK population’s communication and media consumption habits are. It’s backed by detailed research and offers useful insight.

Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future

Published by: Department of Business Innovation and Skills

Date: December 2010

Format: PDF

What is it? Full description of the government’s broadband policy

How useful is it? In addition to further detail on the thinking underlying the strategy, comment is also made on the technologies involved and the relationship of broadband deployment to wider ‘Big Society’ aims.

Next phase of superfast broadband

Published by: Department for Culture, Media and Sport

Date: December 2010

Format: Web and Video

What is it? Statement on the government’s strategy with video excerpt and links to additional information.

How useful is it? A good, quick-access background article that helps explain the key parts of the government's plans.


Last updated at 16:55 Fri 25/Mar/11.

Recent comments


I found this blog post on supply side pressures affecting internet access in Australia a useful aside:

Australian broadband not as fast as the kids would like

Véronique's picture


Third Sector Foresight

I think it’s really important for organisations to consider how their stakeholders might not have access to the internet. The internet is obviously a very hot topic at the moment and will probably continue to be a hot topic for a long time, but it’s important not to loose sight of the other ways organisations communicate and reach people. I guess it’s about being diverse…and strategic.

Karl's picture


Third Sector Foresight

I agree this is a problem, but is the access issue reaching a tipping point? The Internet World Stats website reports that 62% of the population in the UK now has web access. I think that Ofcom estimates are even higher. Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 billion people have web access.

One of the problems about the debate on internet access is that it is a very PC-centric model. I can’t pin down the research – I think it’s by Gartner – but in essence they argue that shortly more mobile phones will be connected to the interne than PCs. My guess is that the mobile phone is perhaps the most democratic, classless piece of technology in use today, whether in the UK or worldwide. So maybe the Smartphone will signal the end of the digital divide.

A second problem is that it is assumed to be a supply-side issue (i.e. supply is too limited/too expensive). But technology adoption is also a demand side issue. I wonder if some people just don’t see the relevance, or the PC/internet doesn’t fit with their lifestyle? So, for a number of years Sky’s dustbin lid was probably not bolted to many homes in Islington as it was a piece of technology with class connotations. The PS3, Xbox etc are similar bits of technology with a particular demographic. Perhaps the final point to note here is that all these devices (and your fridge too, if you fancy it) will all connect to the internet.

Karl’s right about the ever-increasing number of devices that enable you to connect to the internet. Convergence as the geeks call it is ever-increasing. It isn’t difficult to imagine a small device that combines phone, camera, GPS, MP3 player, digital TV, digital radio, Sky +, gaming, virtual money, and works your house key and alarm. I wouldn’t be surprised if such a thing already exists.

From RNIB’s perspective there are two risks with this (and some opportunities). One is price, which although it always tumbles as a product becomes more widely adopted, will tend to be very high upon initial launch. This is a very practical barrier to many charity beneficiaries. The other is accessibility in the sense of it being possible to use a device if you don’t have perfect vision. The internet has actually been a huge boon to many blind and partially sighted people (and I have a blind colleague who recently arrived at a meeting using a personal GPS!). But only if accessibility is built in at the outset. Things like touch-screen interfaces and on-screen menus without an audio description function are huge barriers.

So for the sector more broadly I guess the issues are price, physically being able to access such devices, the decreasing choice for those who do not wish to leap on the fancy new technology bandwagon. The opportunity is to try to work with government, designers and manufacturers to ensure that industry standards take account of diverse needs, which is exactly what we’re trying to do on various fronts.

A recent report from Pew Internet says that the internet is now a major channel of interaction for teenagers in America, I’m sure ours in the UK aren’t too far behind them. Organisations who provide support and services to this group are going to have to make sure they target their efforts to make the best use of social media and similar channels.

Paul 's picture


Third Sector Foresight

It's interesting how the discussion has moved on since the comments posted 2 or 3 years ago. Social networking has made the internet more 'interactive' and sites such as twitter and Facebook are so important in campaigning that they have even been tributed with being pivotal to the election success of Barack Obama.

As we near closer to the 2012 deadline to get everyone in the UK online (you can read an interview with Race Online 2012's Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox in the current issue of Engage), it's important to note there are still huge divides in web use in the UK. According to 2010 Office for National Statistics figures, 60% of UK adults accessed the internet everyday, but 60% of those over 65 had never been online. There also seems to be a huge class divide within internet access, as 97% of those educated to degree level had accessed the internet compared to 45% of those with no formal qualifications. Race online 2012 hopes to address this problem by getting everyone online, while combining this with training so that nobody retires without having learnt web skills.

As Karl and Nicholas said, the current trend is to more and more people accessing the internet through devices other than a PC or laptop such as a smartphone, might this lead to the emergance of a new 'digital divide' in the future between those who are 'always on' and those who only use the internet occassionally?

The type of access people have to the internet may also become a factor. Many in rural areas still find it difficult to connect to broadband networks as some towns are already trialling new 'superfast' broadband. While the government attempts to ensure access to 2mb broadband for all, will this be fast enough to cope with how we use the internet in the future?

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