THE BLOG
19/11/2013 10:18 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Official Internet Access Stats Are Grim, But the Real Picture is Grimmer

The recent ONS stats revealing that 14% of British adults - a staggering 7 million people - have never used the internet made for grim reading.

Hard to imagine a life without Facebook, Skype or email, isn't it? Especially when even the tiniest of toddlers can intuitively master apps on their parents' smartphones and tablets. But for technophobic older people, mention URLs, browsers or cursors, and you might as well be speaking a foreign language.

But the sad reality is that digital isolation affects many more than 7 million adults. Two years ago, if you asked my mum (who is in her 70s) if she was online, she would have answered yes - because she had a computer and she'd used the internet. But I can assure you she wasn't because, at that time, she needed me to sit beside her just to make a Skype call.

Having access to the internet and being able to access the internet are two different things.

Many more than 7 million of us aren't getting all the benefits of being online - whether that's social contact, saving money or saving time - because not everyone knows how to use technology properly.

It's a big concern that millions are still either scared to use or not clued up on the benefits of internet and technology in a country where super fast broadband is so high on the government agenda.

The very people who could benefit most from internet access are the least connected. For the elderly, the internet could vastly improve their quality of life if they knew how to order online shopping, access health advice, save money on utility bills and combat loneliness by connecting with others.

My hunch is that if the stats reflected the gravity of the problem we face, then many more entrepreneurs would look at this as a big opportunity and jump in to build innovative solutions. And that'll make the real difference.

Right now, every time the ONS internet access update comes out, I face the challenge of explaining to well-meaning investors why the opportunity for Breezie - a tablet service designed to get older people who've never used the internet online - is not declining.

Actually, getting people online is a moving target because more and more services are getting online too. And the pace at which services are moving online (take Gov.uk as an example) seems to be much faster than the speed at which the digitally isolated Britain is coming online.

Simply put, a majority of the benefits individuals, businesses and governments can get by people being online cannot be realised until 100% of the population are internet users. If the government needs to keep their legacy channels open for even one traditional transaction, we all lose. If business cannot get to 100% paper free, we all lose.

In this regard, I desperately want these stats to become redundant. I'm waiting for a day when the ONS doesn't need to measure how many people are online and instead focus on how they are online.

The stats reveal a gender barrier as well as an age barrier to internet access, with men (88%) more likely to have used the internet than women (84%). Part of the problem is convincing people, and women in particular, that they need internet, as much as making 'alien' technology more familiar.

To sign off on a high note, there is a positive way to look at these stats. For every Briton who is not online, there are several people who can convince them to be online. Imagine sharing your Wi-Fi with an elderly neighbour, or taking your tablet to them and arranging a Skype video chat with their son in Australia, or their grandkids in Hong Kong.

One day, the ONS will announce they are discontinuing their quarterly internet access update and start issuing new stats, perhaps an internet usage update. Until then, we'll continue the fight to get older people using the internet every day.