Mobile internet is often hailed as the solution to digital exclusion, and I’ve heard technologists, politicians and economists talk about how it’s smart phones and smart TVs that will reach the people and places PCs and laptops couldn’t hope to get to, and magically transform them into confident internet users.
The stats are significant. The latest Ofcom report found that the number of people using a tablet to go online almost doubled from 16% to 30% in the last year, and more than a ⅓ of smartphone users use their phone to buy things online – up from ¼ in 2012. Mobile internet has made getting online easier, quicker, and more convenient, with simple, attractive interfaces offering anytime, anywhere information, connections and transactions.
However, the fact is that there are still not that many people who are ONLY online on their tablet. The Oxford Internet Survey shows that only 1.6% of people use a tablet as their sole device for accessing the internet, showing that for the majority mobile broadband is complementary and not a means for inclusion.
The idea that the rise of mobile internet should automatically prompt a rise in internet usage by traditional non-users assumes the digital divide is far simpler an issue than it actually is. The fact is there is no silver bullet here – mobile or otherwise. Those left behind are there for myriad social, economic and personal reasons, and as the divide narrows and deepens we need to be more innovative, faster and yes – smarter.
At grassroots level, UK online centres see both the potential and the confusion of mobile internet. People come in with hand-me-down smartphones and tablets wanting support to use them, but not understanding when and how they’re online.
Working together, Vodafone UK and Tinder Foundation are going to see how we can best bridge the gap between the potential benefits of mobile internet and its use by digitally excluded audiences.
Working with the UK online centres network we will help centres people to get to grips with smartphones, tablets and MiFi (portable wifi hotspots). We’ll be distributing leaflets introducing beginners to the world of mobile broadband, and introducing a new, free course on Learn My Way. And for people living in our pilot areas, we’ll be launching a ‘hands-on mobile’ scheme where a handful of centres will be given Vodafone smartphones, tablets, and MiFis to loan out to local people.
The fact is that mobile internet does have lots of advantages for whole sub-sets of those left offline. Coinciding with the launch of our partnership, Vodafone UK is also launching a new independent report called Mobile: A powerful tool for Digital Inclusion. It looks at how mobile solutions might be made to work for those resistant to existing, pc-related inclusion programmes. It’s well worth a read.
Smartphones and tablets are in fact easier for older people to master than traditional PCs and laptops, with touch screen technology and bespoke apps often more intuitive than their computer-based counterparts. If you don’t want to be bothered with learning the keyboard, if you find mouse control difficult, this could be much more attractive way to get online and make it work to do exactly and only what you want it to do.
But not everything can be done on a mobile device. CVs, letters, job applications, long and complex benefit forms – all of these really do need a keyboard and a big screen. The good news is that mobile-internet doesn’t just mean phones and tablets. I’m keen that we help people understand the choices they’ve got, including that they can get the benefits of mobile internet via a MiFi or mobile hotspot (through their phone) to get online on a laptop but with all the flexibility of a pay-as-you-go broadband connection and/or a small top-up on a smartphone contract. For many people – for instance those who move frequently – getting a telephone landline in order to get fixed broadband and committing to a contract over a number of months is a significant factor preventing internet use.
It’s not that the mobile broadband options aren’t available, it’s that the people who need them don’t understand that these choices are there for them.
When we personalise the internet for each individual, in terms of content, cost, access, interface, usability and user-confidence, it makes a 100% digitally enabled nation a thing of reality and an ambition worth working for. Helping people to see the benefits of the web, helping them to develop basic online skills and to find a personal broadband solution that works for them – that really does give power to you.