Rural Digital Inclusion: Navigating the Digital Divide

The landscape of digital inclusion across the UK's rural communities is undergoing a critical examination, underscored by the comprehensive studies conducted by the University of Liverpool and its partners. The findings, presented in the "A Minimum Digital Living Standard (MDLS) for Households with Children" report, reveal a nuanced picture of digital inclusion that both challenges preconceptions and highlights specific barriers faced by rural households.

Understanding MDLS in Rural Contexts

MDLS represents a benchmark for digital inclusion, encompassing not only access to the internet and devices but also the essential skills and confidence required to navigate the digital world safely. While the broader findings suggest that 45% of households with children across the UK do not meet the MDLS, the situation in rural areas deserves a closer look.

For rural communities, the challenge of digital inclusion is multifaceted. The MDLS findings initially suggest that living in rural areas doesn’t necessarily correlate with poorer broadband speed or digital exclusion. However, this surface-level observation belies the nuanced reality that rural residents face, including higher costs for broadband services that meet their needs and limited choice in service providers. These issues compound other barriers identified by the research, such as socio-economic status, disability, and ethnicity, making the pursuit of digital inclusivity even more daunting for rural households.

Image credit, MDLS
Barriers Beyond Connectivity

The digital divide in rural communities extends beyond mere access to services. The reports highlight several factors that compound the challenge of digital inclusion:

-  Affordability: The cost of digital services and devices remains a hurdle for many rural households, with some forced to choose between digital connectivity and other essentials.

- Quality of Service: Even when available, rural internet services often suffer from reliability issues, hindering effective online engagement for education, work, and social connectivity.

- Digital Skills: The gap in necessary digital skills and confidence to use technology effectively is pronounced in rural areas, where opportunities for digital literacy training may be scarce.

Policy Recommendations for Rural Resilience

To bridge the digital divide, targeted interventions are needed. The reports advocate for policies that recognise the unique challenges faced by rural communities and propose several strategies:

- Enhanced Affordability: Develop and promote social tariffs tailored to the needs of rural families, ensuring high-quality broadband access at a reasonable cost.

- Infrastructure Investment: Prioritise upgrades to digital infrastructure in rural areas to improve service reliability and speed, closing the quality gap with urban centres.

- Skills Development: Expand digital literacy programs in rural areas, leveraging schools, libraries, and community centres to build residents' confidence and capabilities online.

Shared Responsibility for Digital Safety

Amid these challenges, the issue of digital safety emerges as a critical concern, especially for families with children. The collective effort of government bodies, educators, service providers, and families themselves is essential in creating a safer online environment. The recent Online Safety Act is a step forward, but its implementation must be mindful of the specific vulnerabilities and needs of rural communities.

You can read MDLS’ Research and Publications here.

As the Rural Services Network continues to advocate for the well-being of rural communities, these findings serve as a call to action. Highlighted within our 'Winning the Rural Vote' campaign, particularly in the chapter on 'Rural Digital Connectivity' the urgent need for addressing the multifaceted barriers to digital inclusion is made clear. By tackling these obstacles, stakeholders can unlock the potential for rural areas to thrive in the digital age, ensuring that every household can connect, learn, and participate fully in the digital world.


Sign up to our newsletter to receive all the latest news and updates.