Millions risk being ‘acutely underskilled’: why businesses need to tackle the digital divide

21 February 2024

Ben Allcock, sales director, TP-Link

Ben Allcock, sales director, TP-Link

The UK Government’s ‘lacklustre’ response to the ongoing public and professional digital divide, an issue that still impacts 1.7 million households and forces some small businesses to find WiFi alternatives due to a lack of access or high cost, has recently come under fire from the House of Lords Communications Committee. This is the latest among a long list of organisations to criticise the current state of affairs, related in part to broadband costs.

Perhaps of greater concern is the Industrial Strategy Council’s estimation that ‘around 5 million workers will be digitally excluded by 2030,’ with a loss of approximately £13.7 billion if work is not started now to fix this digital divide.

With businesses increasingly looking to free wireless hotspots or opting to tether to neighbours’ networks to save costs, there are very real concerns that online systems remain difficult to access, impacting efficiencies and ultimately leaving businesses open to cyberattack.

Lack of knowledge and digital upskilling

Just last year, a concerning 66% of internal IT professionals in UK SMEs admitted to lacking knowledge on their network limitations. In response it seems timely that businesses should be considering more simplistic, modern, and cost-effective IT solutions that require less manual support and management.

Across the same study, 42% felt they received poor ongoing IT advice and just over a quarter believed this lack of advice (or quality of advice) is holding their business back. The problem is further exacerbated with 76% of respondents citing that they do not have specific staff members responsible for IT troubleshooting. It is clear that educational and infrastructural change is pressing.

A staggering 58% of small business owners say they would ‘benefit from digital skills training’ and a further 60% wish they had this while they were in education. There is significant interest from small business owners to learn how to use online platforms, but there is simply a lack of support. A further one in five job seekers avoided applying for new roles as they felt they lacked the critical digital skills to succeed.

Businesses would do well to follow educational examples set by charities such as The Good Thing’s Foundation, whose goal is to bridge the digital divide with the provision of mobile WiFi hubs and devices in community digital inclusion groups. Setting these up across the UK enables individuals to both access essential online services and undertake digital skills classes; an initiative that TP-Link is proud to have supported since 2022.

Investment in robust infrastructure

The operational reality for businesses is that almost all (97%) organisations actively rely on the internet for access to essential services such as banking, data management, online store-fronts, payroll, and digital communication. Yet, without robust infrastructure, and support in place, such services can be rendered unusable.

Networking infrastructure must be continually assessed for efficiency and updated to cope accordingly as additional loads and software solutions are placed upon the network operations. Alongside supporting the increased use of apps, there are also growing numbers of global teams working collaboratively in real-time demanding remote system access to deliver mission critical services and products to customers and business partners worldwide. With 77% of employers wanting to make additional use of hybrid working, systems also have a stronger requirement to be future-proofed for technological advancements - ensuring ROI can be monitored over increasingly longer periods of time.

Organisations such as One Small Thing started to tackle potential challenges associated with its network in its early design concepts. A future-proofed digital infrastructure was considered to be a key component for the longer term success of its Hope Street project - a service for convicted women, providing housing, support, and training as an alternative to a custodial sentence. By using heat mapping technology to identify areas of low network connectivity and speeds, One Small Thing opted for cloud networking solutions as both a comprehensive and cost-effective solution.

Cost-effective investments are increasingly important as budgets are monitored closely, but technology that is easy to use, and includes remote IT and management support are equally critical in the decision making process for businesses that need to outsource IT support.

Closing the gap to broaden business opportunities

With global economic challenges still ahead, businesses find themselves in a unique position dealing with operational processes while managing the adoption of new technologies at a faster rate than ever before. What becomes increasingly apparent is that future success is reliant on the strength and capabilities of the underlying network infrastructure, and employees’ ability to access the network - and collaboration is key. For example, the ‘Digital Inclusion Award’ from The Internet Services Providers’ Association actively encourages enterprises to do more to collectively solve this ongoing issue, which TP-Link supports.

Technology will continue to evolve, and in closing the digital divide we will all be better placed to understand what future skill sets are needed, when, and how we can work to future-proof business, instead of reactively focusing on supporting the weakest links.