THE deputy leader of Dorset Council says more could be done to address the ‘digital divide’ in Dorset.
Cllr Peter Wharf, who is also the portfolio holder for Corporate Development & Change, made the comments after it was revealed that about 30% of Dorset’s adult population may have no internet connection or are ‘digitally disadvantaged’ in other ways.
Figures presented to the Dorset Council’s Place and Resources Overview Committee on Thursday reported that roughly 10% of the adult population, 30,000 people, are not online and a further 20% of the Dorset population is ‘digitally disadvantaged or disengaged’ with no or inadequate connection, inadequate skills, or where a suitable service is not available, or they have chosen not to be connected.
Cllr Wharf said that the solution to much of the problem is in the hands of Openreach and, in turn, government finance, with West Dorset MP Chris Loder currently representing all Dorset MPs to lobby for further funding.
He said that so far the minister had offered “a sympathetic response, but with no absolute details”.
Mr Wharf says the council’s digital strategy was to widen access to the internet and to help people, where needed, to make best use of what is available.
He has promised that more work would be completed to see if the “disadvantaged and disengaged” figures could be improved.
Calls to Digital Hotline almost triple during lockdown
Meanwhile, a special hotline set up to help people with digital enquiries has seen the number of calls it receives almost triple during this latest lockdown.
From January 5 to February 5, the Dorset Digital Hotline received 132 calls – its biggest ever monthly total and nearly three times the average monthly calls it received in the last quarter of 2020.
Operated by volunteer Digital Champions, the hotline has helped people in the last month with a wide-range of enquiries, from using Zoom to what device they can buy.
The hotline was set up by Dorset Council in March last year during the first lockdown and when the Digital Champions were no longer able to help people face to face in libraries.
Cllr Peter Wharf, said: “It’s clear that this demand on our hotline shows digital support is at its most needed when the country is in total lockdown.
“Right now, we are so reliant on digital to support us in working and schooling from home, connecting with family and friends and using online services.
“If people are experiencing digital problems, or just need general advice on using devices and getting online, it’s more important than ever that they can get help.
“I’m so pleased residents and businesses in Dorset are using our hotline and our Digital Champions to assist them during these difficult times.”
On day one of the third national lockdown, the first call to the hotline was from a gentleman who had tested positive for COVID-19 and needed help with arranging online shopping delivery slots.
Other calls received during January included a woman whose tablet froze while she was in the middle of internet banking; and a partially-sighted resident who needed help on how to make her screen larger.
A school that needed advice on clearing old information from laptops it had received as a gift also got in touch.
Digital Champion Beverly Barker said: “The volume of calls we received in the last month has shown how many more people are turning to digital devices to stay connected with friends and families, shop for the things they want and access the services they need.
“We are here to help with any problem, no matter how big or small. If we cannot help right there and then, we will search out solutions and go back to the caller.
“People should not suffer in silence; please call us if you have questions or find yourself stuck.”
The Digital Hotline – 01305 221048 – is open Mondays to Fridays from 10am to midday (except Bank Holidays). Outside of these times you can leave a message and someone will get back to you.
You can find out more about ‘Digital Dorset’, tips to speed up your broadband and support available at www.dorsetcouncil.gov.uk/business-consumers-licences/superfast-dorset/digital-dorset.aspx
By Local Democracy Reporter Trevor Bevins