Kira Allmann counts the cost of exclusion from the web that is woven into lives worldwide.

On a blustery, overcast afternoon eight years ago, volunteers for (B4RN, pronounced “barn”) gathered in a field between the villages of Quernmore and Over Wyresdale in Lancashire to break ground on the project that would finally bring the internet to their communities in England’s rural North-West. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, this motley congregation began the first dig to bury fibre-optic cables for an independent local internet network that today connects over 7,000 premises in Lancashire and Yorkshire. “It’s more a network of people than machines,” says one of the local B4RN founders and longstanding volunteer, Chris Conder  commemorating the occasion.

B4RN is a community network; an internet network built, owned, and operated by the local communities who use it. Community networks , responding – like B4RN – to the inability of major telecom companies to provide connectivity. Their inability is due largely to failure in a  As Conder observed, community networks are contingent on people; human connections facilitated via a shared goal of internet connectivity. But when the UK went into lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the ensuing period of forced isolation suddenly revealed ways in which the internet also mediates our humanity.

“Community networks are grassroots solutions to the digital divide.”

Ann Sheridan in Clapham told me over the phone about how she joined friends for a virtual coffee chat “just exactly like we would in a normal coffee morning”– minus the homemade cakes. “Thank God for B4RN,”  from Hornby, whose husband’s funeral was livestreamed online during lockdown. Over 200 families joined the virtual ceremony, and “what could have been a very somber and lonely funeral turned out to be spiritually helpful,” Margie said. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed many of the real costs of digital inequality worldwide. With every aspect of our lives, from education and work to healthcare and socialisation moving online, people lacking internet connectivity are , worsening other kinds of marginalisation often experienced by unconnected people, such as poverty and geographic isolation. But digital inequality encompasses much more than internet access alone. As these snapshots of life under lockdown in rural England illustrate, the internet is a social, cultural, and political space in which we experience and shape our identities and our everyday lives. Digital inequality exists along all of these dimensions when people fall on the wrong side of the digital divide. 

In 2020,  still remains unconnected to the internet. While . And coronavirus lockdowns around the globe have exposed – sometimes shockingly – how digital divides persist even in developed, highly connected countries.

“The internet is a social, cultural, and political space in which we experience and shape our identities and our everyday lives”

One such divide is between rural and urban areas, affecting communities like those served by B4RN. In its most recent report, UK telecom regulator,  95% coverage of “superfast” broadband (30 Mbps) nationwide, but only 79% coverage in rural areas, with 11% of rural premises unable to access even a 10 Mbps connection. Countries  amidst an international healthcare crisis that has isolated millions in their homes.

“The inequalities deepened by the digital divide are more than economic.”

For decades, the concept of the digital divide has been closely associated with economic inequality. In this conceptualisation, the digital divide is an issue of economic development, and the primacy of this approach is evident in international and domestic policy to close the digital divide. Universal internet access is a target within , which aims to “unleash dynamic and competitive economic forces that generate employment and income.” Closer to home in Britain, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport subsidises fibre broadband rollout to rural communities through t, in which rural residents can get £1,500 vouchers where there is a qualifying small-to-medium sized enterprise in the community in need of a connection. These vouchers have been significant for small operators and non-commercial operators. B4RN, for instance, has benefited from The implication of these approaches to closing the digital divide is that access will promote participation in the digital economy and address at least the inequalities associated with economic marginalisation. But the inequalities deepened by the digital divide are more than economic. Research shows that digital inequality is not only a question of who is excluded from a technologically-mediated economy but whose voices, experiences, and knowledge are excluded from a resource (the internet) that has become interwoven into our daily lives.

Rural internet connections in the UK have enabled crucial Covid-19 information-sharing and even an online sheep show during lockdown.”

For example, the campaign has aggregated research illustrating how Wikipedia – – actually only represents a small fraction of global knowledge. , and most articles written about the global South are still written by people in the global North. (This is in spite of the .) As Oxford Internet Institute’s Professor Mark Graham   “Rich countries largely get to define themselves and poor countries largely get defined by others.” 

Digital inequality is therefore a question of access and participation. Most policies and solutions to closing the digital divide do not actively address these multi-dimensional forms of inequality, which often deepen other existing offline inequalities rooted in long histories of gender, racial, and linguistic marginalisation. But community networks offer some examples of access coupled with other contributions to greater digital parity. Because they are embedded in, and built b,y local communities, community networks  reflecting local priorities, issues, traditions, languages, and knowledge. 

Rural internet connections in the UK have  and  during lockdown. When one-time B4RN volunteer, Frank Cranmer, helps publish the Silverdale parish magazine online for his local community, he and his wife are creating content for the digitally-under-represented North-West. As the quotidian experience of B4RN communities shows, digital equality is more than closing the digital divide in access; it is the experience of shaping and being shaped by the internet as a social, cultural, political, and economic space. 

Kira Allmann

Kira is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Media Law & Policy in the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford. Her research explores how people on the margins …

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