Lockdown highlighted digital divide in Britain, MPs told

Broadband and mobile networks generally “held up well” during lockdown but further highlighted the digital divide in Britain, MPs have been told.

Members of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee heard that those without reliable broadband of mobile signal were left isolated during lockdown.

Richard Piggin, head of external affairs at consumer group Which? said around 30% of people surveyed by the group had connections which did not meet their needs during the coronavirus pandemic, cutting them off from vital day-to-day services such as shopping and banking, which moved online during lockdown.

“The last few months have reinforced just how important it is to have good quality broadband and mobile connections, and they’ve also highlighted that there is still a digital divide across the country,” he said.

“It might seem obvious, but those with good quality broadband will have been able to work from home, stay in touch with friends and family and home school.

“Those without good quality connections will have struggled to do all of those things and will have struggled to engage in many important day-to-day activities, whether that’s shopping for groceries online or banking online.”

Mr Piggin was giving evidence to the committee as part of its inquiry into the future of digital technology and the impact of Covid-19 on the digital, culture, media and sport sectors.

He told MPs that one reason for the divide was that many people still do not understand many of the differences around various broadband packages and often rely on price alone as the deciding factor in picking one, something he said left large portions of the country not on the best broadband deal available to them.

Mr Piggin urged Ofcom to take on a role in helping people to better understand broadband terminology and speeds, in order to help get more people onto better mobile and broadband connections.

He also said the “widespread problem” of fake reviews online, as well as online scams and unsecured smart home products should be included in the scope of the Government’s Online Harms legislation, which he said were misleading people and placing them at risk.

In addition, the committee heard from Felicity Burch, director of innovation and digital at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) who was asked about the impact of the UK’s decision to block Huawei from its 5G networks.

Asked by MPs if an estimation made by Mobile UK to the Committee in May that the decision to ban the Chinese firm would cost the UK economy between £4.5 and £6.8 billion, she said the “damage was likely to be reflective of those numbers”.

She also agreed with other assessments that it was “likely” the decision would delay the rollout of 5G and full-fibre broadband.