Digital poverty is defined as an inability to interact with the online world fully, when, where, and how an individual needs to (DPA, 2022). Digital poverty exacerbates and is exacerbated by other socioeconomic, educational, racial, linguistic, gender, and health inequalities, becoming both the product and the cause of other forms of socio-economic disadvantage (Hernandez and Roberts, 2018; DPA, 2022). It describes not just differences in access, labelled as “first-level” or “basic digital divide”, but autonomy of use, skill, social support and the purposes for which the technology is employed, labelled as the “second-level digital divide” (Rinaldo et al., 2014). Tackling digital poverty would require intentional and continuous policy interventions addressing 5 different elements: 1) affordable, robust broadband internet service; 2) internet enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; 3) access to digital literacy training; 4) quality technical support; and 5) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration (National Digital Inclusion Alliance, 2020).
Previous studies have identified several drivers of digital poverty, including demography (age, sex, ethnicity), socioeconomic status (education and income), location, infrastructure, internet access cost and quality. In particular, internet access costs are an important consideration especially for low-income households living in deprived communities, as the costs of acquiring an efficient and effective broadband and device may be unaffordable for most low-income households, further deepening the digital divide among deprived communities (Kearns and Whitley, 2019). However, tackling digital poverty is not relevant just to get people using more technology per se, but rather to empower the use of technology to impact on and transform people's lives (Rinaldo et al., 2014). Several studies have applied different methodologies to diverse contexts to try to evaluate the impact that digital poverty, and its reduction, might have on several outcomes, mostly focusing on students’ educational performance, households’ economic outcomes, and individuals’ wellbeing. However, previous evidence has not provided a comprehensive analysis of the impact of digital poverty on different socio-economic outcomes, in particular regarding the relationship with the hurdle of high internet access costs deepening the digital divide, which is especially relevant for low-income households living in deprived communities.
The aim of this project is to assess the impact of access to unlimited high-speed broadband connection for households on several socio-economic indicators, such as education achievements, labour market participation, and community engagement, among disadvantaged households. This is a collaborative project involving a number of private and public organisations, including Sheffield City Council, VAS (Voluntary Action Sheffield), the Lottery-funded youth and community service provider SY-NC, the David and Jane Richards Family Foundation (a Sheffield-based charity), the local internet service provider Pinemedia, the University of Sheffield and the Digital Poverty Alliance. The project wants to provide high-speed and unlimited fibre broadband to the households located in one of the most deprived social housing estates in the local authority district of Sheffield, in order to alleviate digital poverty, and assess the impact of better and more affordable internet broadband accessibility on education, labour market participation, and community engagement. Researchers at the University - in collaboration with the Digital Poverty Alliance research team and a group of community researchers - will be in charge of carrying out an in-depth and rigorous evaluation of the effects of this intervention on the local community. The project will run for two years, and the pilot will be used to analyse the effectiveness of this type of intervention before rolling it out to other towns and cities across the country.