Calculating the Benefits of Bridging the Digital Divide

iStock_000003223001_Small-300x199London     Our last meeting in London before schlepping our gear towards Heathrow was with a charming activist named Claire Milne over coffee and tea near Kings Crossing.  Claire is part of something called the Essential Services Access Network in Britain, which we’re clearly going to have to learn more about.  Interestingly, we were talking about her specialty, telecommunications and our efforts in ACORN’s Digital Access Opportunity Campaign in the US and Canada, and our head scratching efforts to figure out where low and moderate income families stood in this regard in the United Kingdom.

Though on the narrow level of “access,” both our organizers and research indicated the technical numbers are actually quite high, ranging towards 95%, much of that is more limited through phones, and only 50% or less own smartphones that might give somewhat more.  Directed to a report by the Tinder Foundation, we already knew from Claire that there needed to be a lot of leaping still to bridge the divide in the UK as well.

To quote from Appendix A:
11 million      Number of people in 2013 who don’t have Basic Online Skills, using the internet regularly – of which…
7 million       Number of people who have never used the internet
1 million        Number of people who are lapsed users of the internet
3 million       Number of people who use the internet regularly but don’t have Basic Online Skills
6.2 million    Number of people who, in 2020, won’t meet our criteria on current trends or with current programs

Our obvious argument has been that the internet is now a public utility, and like electricity, gas, or telephone, as a utility, access has to be universal as a matter of simple equity.  The Tinder Foundation report made a telling argument though about the economic losses for Britain due to the lack of access.   Quoting a government report they argued:

Government Digital Service (GDS), we know that just getting people totransact with government online could save some £1.7 billion a year. Not a big enoughnumber for you? Well thanks to the work of Martha Lane Fox, Go ON UK and Booze &Co, we also know that being a leading digital nation in the global economy would realisesome £63 billion worth of benefit. Since we also know that comparing dollars to the pound, our money spends like pesos in the UK, you can pretty much double those numbers to put them in a North American context, meaning a governmental savings of almost $3.5 billion and an economic benefit of over $120 billon.

There’s no sense pretending that everyone cares whether lower income families have an equal shake, since the evidence is glaringly obvious to the contrary, but transposing those kinds of numbers over to North America, perhaps we could get more attention if we forced the big whoops to reckon with the money they – and we – are losing by going to not make access universal.

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