THE BLOG

Digital Isolation Plagues Those Who Need Internet Most

21/06/2013 13:14 BST | Updated 21/08/2013 10:12 BST

The internet isn't a privilege, it's an essential.

If you're reading this, you don't need me to tell you that it encompasses every aspect of our lives - from shopping and accessing news to keeping in touch with loved ones overseas and finding employment or even romance.

But not everyone is online. In the UK, 5.2million households still have no internet access.

Laudably, there have been several robust campaigns focused on getting the elderly online, working to close the gap in the great digital divide and solve the problem of isolation and loneliness in old age.

But pensioners are not the only 'offline' section of society. It appears we should be striving to help another excluded group too, those who live in social housing.

According to the Online Centres Foundation (OCF), 50% of people who live in social housing never use the internet.

Social housing tenants are less likely to own computers, and may see home broadband as a luxury spend. They may not possess the necessary skills to use the internet or hardware due to a lack of training, particularly if they have been out of work for a long time.

But, along with the elderly, social housing tenants are the very people who could benefit most from getting online. The internet could help them find and undertake online training courses, search for jobs, get CV-writing tips and manage their finances. There are also advantages for school children who can use the web for homework.

And perhaps one of the most measurable advantages of surfing the web is being able to save money. Helen Milner, CEO of the OCF has argued that social housing providers must "embed digital skills" in all tenant activities, after pointing out that people who are online can save £200-£300 per year by shopping around and find the best deals - which are very often only available online.

That tallies with uSwitch.com figures which show that there are a number of savings to be made on household bills by shopping around. Mobile phone and broadband customers could make annual average savings of £121 or £120 by getting a new deal, while switching energy can save you up to £314 a year.

The cheapest deals also tend to be online, meaning those without the internet are being hit with bigger bills. In fact the difference between the most expensive (an old fashioned deal with paper bills and payment by cash or cheque) is £224 more than the cheapest - an online - deal.

And with mobiles, not being able to manage your account online and having to opt for paper bills could cost you up to almost £20 a year.

In the short term, investing in digital training programs for social housing tenants may be costly, but could reap dividends in the long term. These people will have far greater capacity not only to seek work, but will be better equipped with the skills to succeed in the workplace.

Social mobility is a political hot potato but that shouldn't mean we shy away from it. Politicians may be using the situation to secure votes, but we should look beyond that to the fact that social mobility simply can't happen if the underprivileged and vulnerable are without access to the internet, arguably the cornerstone on which modern society is built.

Access to broadband for school work, in the search for a job or to get the best deals on household bills should be a right and not a privilege, regardless of age, gender, or income - and there's no time like the present to get Britain online.