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Addressing digital divisions to create an inclusive and resilient digital society that’s fit for the future

01 Dec 2020Viewpoint
By Anne O’Leary, CEO at Vodafone Ireland

As we continue to live under the shadow of COVID-19 restrictions, there is no denying the crucial role technology has played in keeping us connected throughout the year, and this step change in the rate of digitisation has been largely positive. For governments, it has put into sharp focus the importance of connectivity and while equal and timely access to it is welcomed, we must start to think about a broader digital strategy which encompasses our future needs as a society. 

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has triggered positive acceleration of digital adaption, however, in the same breath, it has exposed a digital divide. It is easy to forget that while we depend on and use technology every day, many have never used or have low confidence in navigating their way through it.

In Ireland, 29% of 60-74 year-olds have never used the internet, while only 19% of over 65s have basic digital skills. To address this digital skills gap, more considered action needs to be taken. Low digital literacy in over 65s coupled with an aging population will exacerbate the digital divide that already exists. The risk of leaving our older generation behind is further accelerated as society becomes more digitally focused. More and more critical services are being delivered online such as healthcare, banking and retail and social interaction is becoming increasingly digital too.

By 2031, there will be nearly one million people over the age of 65 in Ireland. That will represent an increase of more than 86% since 2016. This will likely bring challenges to traditional residential care settings. We need to look at how we can best support people in their homes with the help of assistive technology. In order for this to be a viable option we need to ensure that our aging population is digitally confident and comfortable with the devices they are using.

Investment at a European and national level will be essential to addressing the digital inequalities the COVID 19 pandemic has exposed. To address these disparities, it is up to governments and industry to work together to rebuild a fairer more robust society.

At Vodafone Ireland we are proud to play our part in keeping older people connected. We need to recognise that isolation can impact their mental health and wellbeing, especially if they live alone and are unable to see family and friends.

At the height of early lockdown restrictions, we noted a marked increase in the volume of calls from non-smartphones – indicating, perhaps, an older generation were relying more than ever on traditional voice mobile connectivity to stay in touch with family and friends. This suggested there was a need to help the older generation adapt to their smartphone device and  Vodafone Ireland was ready to step up.

We took a decision to donate 1,000 smartphone devices to ALONE, a charity which supports older people throughout Ireland.

The devices were topped up with credit and distributed by ALONE to their members. Vodafone ensured that each device was pre-loaded with number of useful applications including WhatsApp, Facebook, Spotify, News, along with information about online food deliveries and other important phone numbers, including the ALONE national helpline.

To instil confidence and provide support to new smartphone users, we set up and launched the Vodafone Smartphone Support Line for Older People. The dedicated smartphone helpline is designed to offer advice and support to older smartphone users as they navigate their devices. The free-phone helpline provides one-to-one assistance for those over 70, regardless of their network provider. The helpline is run by Vodafone’s retail agents who are on hand to provide guidance on how to navigate handset menus, connect to the internet/WIFI, make phone and video calls, set up WhatsApp, email and social media accounts on a smartphone.

At Vodafone, connecting for good is deep rooted within our purpose. The practical support we have provided to ALONE and its members is something my team and I are immensely proud of. 

Government, society, business, communities and individuals now need to focus on how we emerge from this crisis. COVID 19 has presented us with an opportunity to map out and rebuild our future economy. The heart of this strategy needs to be focused on giving people, regardless of age, income or where they live, the tools, the skills and capabilities to thrive in our digital society.

We also need to make sure that we are able to track our increasing digitalisation, so that we know the recovery funds are being spent in a way that brings real, tangible benefits to citizens’ lives. That’s why we’re getting behind the goal to achieve 90 for 27 on the DESI Index, which tracks the evolution of EU Member States in digital competitiveness across a range of metrics. This is a bold target to measure digitalisation – particularly in the areas of Connectivity, Human Capital and use of internet services.

I believe the recovery plans being formulated at national and EU level are a once in a generation opportunity and can lead to significant change for both Ireland and the EU; creating jobs and bringing prosperity while making our societies greener, more resilient and fairer.

  • Digital skills
  • Europe
  • Policy
  • Resilience
  • Viewpoint