Three comms challenges telcos must tackle before meaningfully addressing the digital divide

Ofcom recently released its Connected Nations Autumn update, the telecom industry regulator’s long-look at the state of the UK’s connectivity. Tucked beneath the headline news of growing ultrafast speeds and higher median broadband connections was a troubling figure. The gap between average urban and rural broadband speeds has widened again, despite a “sustained period during which it narrowed” (as reported by Computer Weekly).

This ‘digital divide’ – a term used to describe the gulf between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ – is a painful blackthorn in the foot of the telecoms industry. It makes it much harder for the industry to convincingly communicate that it is focused on connectivity for all.

This isn’t a new issue, but it really came to the fore in the pandemic. With families, students and workers forced to stay at home, how well they could carry out their jobs, schooling and socialise was determined by their access to adequate connectivity.

Now, the industry and Government has made strides to fix rural connectivity issues – such as with the £5billion Project Gigabit scheme, which was designed to connect rural areas to high-speed broadband. But with thousands of businesses and households still underserved by connectivity options, and the gap continuing to widen, this embarrassing blemish risks becoming a big communications blowout.

This isn’t to play down the challenge facing the industry. The majority of service providers (SPs), network builders, policymakers and the wider industry have been looking for a fix for decades. It’s not simply a matter of planting more masts in the ground or laying more cables – there are cost and logistical issues that make this a much bigger feat.

With no quick fix on the horizon, how can the industry communicate empathetically about the digital divide? Here are three ideas:

Focus communication on sharing vs competition

 Building new telco infrastructure up mountains and in valleys is expensive. And unlike supplying densely-populated areas with thousands of potential customers per square mile, it doesn’t drive the same commercial returns for service providers and networks as building in populated areas.

On the flipside, failing to build in rural spots because of the lack of commercial impetus is a bad look for an industry that is so keen to talk about the economic power unlocked by good connectivity.

Fortunately, the policy and technology landscapes are evolving at pace, and introducing solutions to this commercial conundrum. The evolution of OpenRAN and the Shared Rural Network, which promote the principles of shared infrastructure – where multiple providers can use the same mast, for example – are starting to realise the ambition of universal fast services.

For the industry, this presents an opportunity to talk about coming together to deliver services that will benefit everyone – rather than focusing on faster speeds and more reliable service than the competition.

Play up the power of sustainable solutions

Naturally, the need to develop more infrastructure to support remote locations has an impact on the environment – such as greater material usage and higher energy costs. With the UK’s major providers signing up to their own net zero commitments, any drive to address rural connectivity simply can’t be at the expense of the industry’s green agenda.

This provides a good opportunity to lean into the brilliant advances in technology that are delivering greater connectivity, while minimising carbon footprints. From wooden masts which reduce the use of carbon-heavy materials, and renewable energy sources that can live on the side of masts, through to schemes that can recycle up to 80% of smartphones, there’s a wealth of innovation keeping the industry in line with their sustainability commitments.

With the general public keen for businesses to stick to climate commitments, it’s important that you communicate your innovations, however small, that are playing a role in helping the industry to deliver on its green agenda – while still pushing for universal connectivity.

Emphasise need for consistent connectivity

I was sat in a festival field in Somerset last summer where the old cabled internet was struggling with capacity issues. Within 24 hours, the organisers had linked up to Starlink, the satellite broadband provider owned by Elon Musk, supplying over 5,000 revellers with high-speed connectivity.

It was an impressive showcase of an industry disrupting technology that has put a cat among the incumbent terrestrial providers. Starlink is undoubtedly an exciting innovation, and while Elon has argued that it can provide economies of scale, its ability to cover the hundreds of thousands of hard-to-reach homes in the UK has yet to be tested.

This underlines an important point for everyday people. While it’s great to see the rise of new technologies looking to tackle digital inequality, it has to be systematic, fundamental and forward-looking. With so many people relying on connectivity to work, learn and socialise, it’s important that any industry communications focus on consistency, rather than a short-term triage of the issues.

While it’s clear that there’s no silver bullet to tackle the digital divide, the way that SPs, networks, industry bodies and the Government communicate around it is so important. It requires a tactful and empathetic message, that acknowledges that while there’s no quick fix for it, it is a core concern for the industry, and required to help the UK level up together.

I’m sure the burning topic of connectivity will come up as a key theme at our forthcoming Tech Trends event, which we’re hosting on 12th January at the Picture House in Piccadilly Circus. It’s our annual state of the nation look at the UK’s technology landscape, featuring insights from The Times, Bloomberg, Metro and the BBC. And you can sign up here if you’re interested in attending!