The West Midlands faces a huge challenge in providing as many residents and businesses as possible with access to reliable, quick broadband.
Nearly a quarter (22%) of West Midlands residents are ‘non-users’ who either do not use, or do not have access to the internet.
Another 23.3% are ‘limited internet users’, meaning nearly half of the West Midlands population have poor access to the internet.
The chart below shows that the proportion of non-users in the West Midlands (22%) is well above the UK average of 15%.
Over 526,000 people across WMCA 7 Met area have said that a lack of access to the internet limits their day-to-day activities — 158,000 of these live in one of the top 10% most deprived Lower-layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs).
Internet access is not the only challenge facing the region — there is a digital skills shortage, with 56% of people saying they don’t have the essential skills needed for work. That means that amongst UK regions, the West Midlands has the highest proportion of employers who say they find applicants with digital skills difficult to find (38%).
With 92% of employers saying they need their employees to have these essential digital skills, many people are shut out of employment opportunities.
Levelling up digital inclusion will result in stronger employment and earnings progression for residents. Manual workers with essential digital skills can earn £2,160 more per year compared to those without these skills (Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2020).
This ability to earn more will result in greater resilience to cost of living pressures, along with having the skills to shop and pay bills on-line, which can result in substantial cost savings.
Improved access to public services such as welfare, transport, health, and council services will benefit residents, alongside potential reductions in the cost of providing these services.
Furthermore, reduction in isolation of older and other vulnerable people through greater connection with family and friends, and with essential services, will result in improved mental health.
Improved access to employment for residents through increased confidence to gain skills, look for work online, and secure employment will also benefit productivity among businesses through effective utilisation of these employees’ newfound digital skills.
Levelling Up Mission:
By 2030, the UK will have nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, with 5G coverage for the majority of the population.
Progress So Far…
Digital Inclusion is a priority within the West Midlands Digital Road Map; the first of five missions is aimed at securing access for everyone, particularly those in poverty, to digital opportunities.
- The Digital Catch Up proposal was developed to address some of the challenges that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and to support communities that are most likely to be digitally excluded, including the unemployed and those furthest away from the labour market, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities;
- Currently the WMCA is working with government to deliver Digital Skills Bootcamps, a project which was launched in the region and was rolled out more widely following its success;
- The WMCA also established the West Midlands Coalition for Digital Inclusion and Digital Skills Partnership for stakeholders across the region.
- £4m Connected Services Fund to improve IT accessibility to help disadvantaged communities get online.
- A place-based targeted approach with a focus on 115 LSOAs across 61 wards that are in the lowest 10% (across the deprivation index for Income, Employment, Health, and Education) accounting for 23,063 residents.
- £3m Development Fund to manage monitor and evaluate seven pilots (1 per LA area) across the region focused on social housing /community hubs.
- Trialling and expanding the use of social tariffs to increase access to broadband.
- Developing a network of organisations (public, private and VCSE sector) across the region.
- WMCA would be accountable for commissioning, monitoring, and evaluating the approach to look to build a sustainable model.
What We Hope to Achieve
The £4 million Connected Services Fund would provide more than 23,000 people with data-enabled devices and help to start budgeting for data over the longer term by 2025.
This would allow residents to access essential online services such as benefits and healthcare, allowing them to shop online and connect with loved ones, and improve prospects by allowing them to access education and the online job market.
The digital champion model would provide peer-to-peer digital support, developing 150 digital champions contributing 70,000 hours of support over a 12-month period, bridging the gap between informal and formal training.