Online Britain: Who's Getting Left Behind?

Apps and smartphones are increasingly becoming an essential part of everyday life.

Yet it’s estimated that more than 10 million adults in the UK lack the basic skills to access the internet and around 40% of over 75s don’t use it at all. In a world that’s becoming digital, what happens to the millions left behind? 

Last year, 71 year old Agnes from Cornwall had an issue with a local car park. The parking machine was out of order, so she parked anyway. Two days later, she received a penalty charge of sixty pounds. The parking company said that there is an online website facility if cash is not available, and it is the responsibility of the driver to ensure appropriate payment is made.

Agnes says she doesn’t know how to access the internet or download apps on her smartphone. When she refused to pay the fine, the parking company increased the fine to one hundred and sixty pounds, and continued to pursue her with multiple letters, threatening to take her to court. 

In the over 65 age group, 80% now own a smartphone. But there’s still around two and a half million who do not use the internet at all.

Being excluded from the online world is not just a problem affecting older people. One in seven people within the UK are impacted by digital exclusion in one form or another, with around two and a half million UK households struggling to afford the internet.

As we become a more digital society, some of our older technology is being replaced completely.

The UK’s landline phone network has existed for over one hundred years. But plans are underway to get rid of it entirely.

In 2017, the government and major telecom companies agreed that traditional landlines which are run on copper wires would be phased out by the end of 2025 and they would be replaced by telephone communication based on the internet. Telecoms companies say that the switchover to digital landlines is an essential response to retire an ageing and increasingly unstable legacy network. 

But concerns have been raised about a significant drawback.

Ninety seven year old Albert lives in rural North Shropshire. He relies on his landline phone for all communication, and it is linked to a personal alarm device which he wears around his neck, in case of medical emergencies. He is one of almost two million people in the UK who use personal alarm systems which run off the landline in their homes. 

In December, the government called a meeting with telecoms providers after learning of serious incidents where the digital switchover had caused devices to fail.

They have now drawn up a charter asking phone companies to not forcibly move customers onto the digital network unless they are fully confident that they will be protected. 

Tech UK, who bring together phone providers, said the communications industry is continuing to work to identify, protect and support telecare users and those with additional needs before they switch.

But there are still reports of people being transferred over without assessing their vulnerabilities and whether their telecare system will work or not.

The government told Tonight that safety of vulnerable customers is their number one priority, and they continue to work closely with both providers and Ofcom.