SINGAPORE - While the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digitalisation in some sectors, it has also raised concerns that vulnerable segments of society are being left behind in a so-called digital divide.
In the absence of a clear measure of the digital divide here, there are some official figures that suggest there could be some who fall through the cracks.
The Infocomm Media Development Authority's (IMDA) annual Infocomm Usage survey last year found 89 per cent of all resident households owned computers, and 98 per cent of households had access to broadband Internet.
But the latest Household Expenditure Survey for 2017/2018, a separate study, found that 81 per cent of resident households had a personal computer (PC) and 87 per cent had Internet access, which suggests that at least one in 10 households here are not plugged in digitally.
The same survey found that fewer than half (45 per cent) of households in one- and two-room Housing Board flats had Internet subscription - a sharp contrast to the near total Internet penetration (97 per cent) among households living in private condominiums and other apartments.
In acknowledgement of this, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said in an interview with Insight that a key focus of his ministry is to reach out to groups in the "digital extremities" and help them.
"These are the furthest reaches, the last mile or the last inch, and those who you may expect to perhaps be the last to adopt technology, and may not have adopted it at all," he said.
Over the course of a month, Insight spoke to experts as well as people from four groups in these extremities to understand their concerns about a widening digital divide.
For lower-income students, simply having access to devices is not enough. Experts are concerned that they still lag behind their more well-off peers in making good use of tech devices and services.
For low-wage workers, the disparity in access to digital devices and skills could also worsen an already widening skills gap between them and those in higher-paying jobs.
Also affected by this digital divide are seniors, some of whom still hold reservations about being plugged in, and may lose out on the potential benefits of the digital economy.
And while strides have been made on the digital front for people with disabilities, many apps and services still fail to fully anticipate and accommodate their needs.
Leaving vulnerable groups behind in this digital divide could worsen current social inequalities, noted Dr Natalie Pang, a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Department of Communications and New Media.
"The gap between those who are more affluent and those who are not will be exacerbated, and I think we must also be mindful of new divides that can potentially emerge," said Dr Pang.
For instance, children with supportive families who take an active role in their use of digital devices and learning could better build foundations to help them develop healthy digital practices, compared with a child who does not have similar support networks. "Such outcomes are not always a result of income," she added.
Professor Lim Sun Sun, head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said lower-income adults will also be "very disadvantaged" when seeking work in many industries that are digitalising if they are not equipped with digital skills. Their social mobility will accordingly be more limited, she added.
The type of device that households have access to also has a bearing on their digital literacy, experts said.
According to the Household Expenditure Survey, about a fifth of households in one- and two-room HDB flats had access to a laptop, while close to 8 per cent of them had access to a desktop computer, as compared with 80 per cent and 48 per cent respectively for those in landed properties.
This suggests that many people in lower-income households may be relying only on mobile devices, like smartphones, to access the Internet.
Prof Lim said relying on smartphones instead of desktops or laptops can disadvantage working adults and school-going children as these are not ideal devices for education and upskilling.
The divide in the quality of Internet usage among less and more privileged households could also have an impact on their future prospects, she noted, adding that more insights into the quality of digital access and the nature of device usage are required to identify the gaps in digital skills and access to devices.
Bridging the gap
To help vulnerable groups, IMDA enhanced its NEU PC Plus programme during the circuit breaker. The scheme allows people with disabilities and students aged 25 and under to buy a desktop computer or a laptop at prices starting from $220, subject to income criteria.
Adjustments were made so that beneficiaries could obtain PCs more quickly and easily under the scheme, which also comes with an option to bundle three years of free fibre broadband subscription.
For instance, processing times were reduced from between eight and 12 weeks to less than eight weeks, so that beneficiaries could get PC bundles faster.
Families with three or more school-going children were allowed to apply for a second subsidised PC, up from one device per household before the circuit breaker. In total, close to 10,000 new beneficiaries have received help from the scheme since the circuit breaker.
"(Lack of access to devices) should not be the reason why the child can't have home-based learning, or the parent cannot participate in work from home... And we will find ways to help, if there is a family in need," said Mr Iswaran, stressing that this is a collective effort that will need the involvement of companies and community groups too.
He added that the Government is aiming for universal digital coverage, including affordable access to devices and digital connectivity, though he did not specify a timeline.
Associate Professor Irene Ng of the NUS Social Service Research Centre and Department of Social Work hopes affordable access to devices can be provided in the future without requiring means-testing or a separate application process.
"As the NEU-PC experience teaches us, the programme is there - yet when the circuit breaker came, many families had not applied," she noted.
Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Carol Soon said another challenge that has to be tackled is how to upgrade people's usage of technology after they gain access to it, or update their skills.
"Training and delivery of content should meet the personalised needs of users... People can be taught skills but they will lose them if they do not use them on a regular basis," she said.
Digital training courses should also incorporate elements of literacy, cognitive and problem-solving skills, added Dr Soon, citing an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report which showed that numeracy skills, literacy skills and problem-solving skills could inhibit people's ability to perform more diverse and complex online tasks.
Dr Pang said policy solutions should also pay attention to the lived realities of various groups that are being helped, and consider their specific needs to avoid blind spots. "Our journey to digital inclusion must also be an inclusive one."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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