The digital divide is coming your way

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When Debbie Gainsford after checking into an Ibis hotel in Aldgate, London to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers on June 26, she was told by the front desk that if she had any problems, she could scan the QR code in her room to contact her. She didn’t think she would need it until she returned to her room at 10:30 pm wanting to take a shower but realized there were no towels.

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With no phone in the room, Gainsford, 43, conscientiously scanned the QR code. She read a note saying cleaning services were only available during certain hours, and then followed a link on WhatsApp to send a message to the hotel reception. She sent a message asking for towels. The employee read it but didn’t answer.

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She sent the message again. “I didn’t want to do it so late at night,” she says. Eventually someone replied that she could pick up her towels at the front desk. She went down nine floors, took the towels and went back to her room. “After paying £120 a night, I didn’t expect this kind of experience at a hotel,” she says. It wasn’t so much room service as “come and get it yourself”.

Gainsford is far from alone. Throughout the pandemic, in-person and analogue services have rapidly given way to digital alternatives. Many restaurants and bars have ditched physical menus in favor of QR codes, apps and web forms. At Walt Disney World Florida, an app-based chatbot invites visitors to visit long closed restaurants. While the digital divide has excluded the economically disadvantaged and the elderly for years, its rapid expansion poses a new problem: Technology is often terrible.

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Disappointments are tiny, but legion: people in hotels who can’t get clean sheets without ordering them on the app; sports fans are told to download the program on their phone since there are no physical copies; McDonald’s customers baffled by banks self-service kiosks. For businesses, such changes are often viewed as more efficient and improved, but the reality is more complex.

Replacing in-person services with digital alternatives is becoming a growing inconvenience for those on the other side of the digital divide. An estimated at 2.9 billion peopleAccording to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s IT agency, 37 percent of the world’s population has never used the Internet.

On the one hand, greater convenience and lower prices for telephones and the Internet are helping more people go online: 782 million people went online for the first time between 2019 and 2021, according to ITU. However, for many, this is not so much persuasion on the Internet as it is coercion.

Take, for example, banking. Number of bank branches in the USA fell 6.5 percent since 2012, according to financial company Self. The number of branches by 2030 will be lower than in 1965, when the US population was 194 million. A similar trend is observed in the UK, where the number of branches of banks and building societies dropped by a third in the period from 2012 to 2021.

To exacerbate the problem, many banks are luring customers with apps, offering better rates for those who want or can open digital savings accounts. RBS-owned Natwest has an interest rate of 3.3% for an app-only digital savings account compared to a 0.1% interest rate for an instant branch savings account. The low-income and the elderly, who are less likely to own smartphones, do not have access to such accounts.

The pandemic and the push to digitize key services have led to what ITU calls “accelerating Covid connectivity.” But connectivity is increasingly becoming an affordability issue, exacerbated by the rising cost of living. The USA, for example, has some of the highest prices in the world for high speed internet. “There is a problem with access,” says Chakravorty. “And then there’s the availability issue.” The average price of broadband access in the US is about $80 per month, according to the FCC, which means that high-quality, high-speed Internet access is out of reach for many. “You’re combining affordability and affordability, and you have large parts of the country that aren’t using the Internet at broadband speeds,” says Chakravorty.

“It’s not just about age,” says Hannah Smethurst, trainee lawyer and digital law researcher at Thorntons Law. “It has to do with economics.” With every service moving online, we are moving closer to the inevitability of a largely or fully digital world. At this point, Internet access and the cost of smartphones will become so ubiquitous and cheap that we will forget about the pre-digital era. But we’re not there yet. Over a million households across the UK are struggling to pay their broadband bills, according to telecommunications regulator Ofcom, a figure that equates to one in 10 low-income households.

Having basic broadband and mobile internet has become what Chakravorty calls “table rates.” Without access, you don’t exist digitally. This is a problem that the US government has recognized, launch of a $45 billion initiative to give high speed internet to everyone in America. (Chakravorty’s own calculations suggest that the US spend $240 billion fill the digital infrastructure gap.)

It’s not just the internet. “At this stage, it’s incredibly difficult to do without a smartphone,” says Smethurst. Bye 97 percent Americans have a cell phone, according to the Pew Research Center, only 85 percent have a smartphone. And while 92 percent people in the UK own a smartphone, Deloitte research shows that about one in 10 Britons I still own a regular cell phone. “I’m not saying it’s bad,” she says. “The thing is, the exclusivity of these things drives people out of society.”

This impact can be felt in small problems—the need to drive further to the physical bank branch now that the locals have disappeared—as well as larger ones. “Internet accessibility has been one of the key factors influencing whether people will survive the pandemic or not,” says Chakravorty. He and his colleagues from Digital Planet analyzed data to find that a 1 percent increase in broadband in the US led to a 0.1 percent drop in Covid death rates. This is partly due to access to healthcare: from the beginning of 2022. 38 percent Americans sought telehealth care, compared with 0.7 percent in 2019.

So what to do? One option is New Zealand, which follows digital inclusion plan since 2019. It is still at the beginning of its journey, but the country has made some progress in educating and encouraging those in marginalized communities to go online, barrier detection they face when adopting technologies and working to overcome them.

One of the priority areas is New Zealand. Indigenous people. Actions taken so far included opening hubs that act as online educational bases in addition to coworking centers at a cost of NZ$34 million (US$20 million) and ensuring that any data used to access key government websites over a mobile connection is not were charged.

New Zealand is beginning to grapple with the magnitude of the problem, but there is a risk that other countries will not act quickly enough to close the gap. There are two options for Smethurst that need to be implemented simultaneously: first, businesses need to be incentivized to continue offering good offline alternatives. “If you are going to require restaurants to provide calorie information [a UK legal requirement]I don’t see why it can’t be said that they should at least have a physical menu somewhere,” she says. For medical services and call centers, preventing the spread of digital technologies is more of a challenge, as they are often presented as a way to avoid overworkunderpayment and understaffing.

And here comes the second option: government intervention to reduce the cost of accessing digital services in any way possible (the New Zealand government, for example, is negotiating with fiber providers about install high-speed broadband access in social housing). But perhaps the cheapest intervention of all would be to cut the cost of the devices that now serve as our gateway to existence. “We need cheaper smartphones,” says Smethurst.

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