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Monday, 4 March, 2002, 08:33 GMT
Digital divisions split town and country
Lake District, PA
Rural areas are badly served by many technologies
Britain's digital divide is in danger of growing so wide it cannot be bridged.

Research into the social effects of technology has found that some sectors of society are in danger of being entirely cut off from the benefits of new devices that keep people in touch while they travel.

The report also reveals that mobile phones, teleworking and laptops often prove a burden rather than a boon to those trying to balance home and work life.

The authors of the report said the time was right for bold action by the UK Government to ensure the changes brought about by novel technologies did not prove too disruptive.

Home help

The internet, laptop computers, ubiquitous mobile phone networks and broadband links were supposed to help overcome the divisions between rich and poor and town and country.

But a joint study by IBM and Local Futures, which researches the geography of social change, has found that, far from uniting Britain, new technologies are serving to deepen divisions.

Making information easy to get at everywhere is not helping those in rural areas, reports the research.

Instead, the study found that the biggest users of teleworking and mobile technologies are companies and individuals found in towns, cities and suburbs.

Now organisations such as Parcelforce and utility companies are using handheld computers to keep a closer eye on staff productivity and working patterns.

Breaking point

The technologies are not always a blessing for those that use them to spend less time in the office.

The report said that some employers were taking advantage of the fact that employees were always available, to lengthen the working day and get more out of them.

Electricity meter, BBC
Meter readers equipped with personal digital assistants
"The thinking employers are making their employees work smarter not harder," said Paul Revell, an e-business consultant from report sponsor IBM.

Staff trusted to work from home during normal office hours had higher morale and greater productivity, said Mr Revell. Such changes in work patterns could have a potentially huge impact on a company's costs, he said.

In seven years IBM had halved the amount of office space each worker needed by letting many of its staff regularly work from home, said Mr Revell.

Direct action

But while many companies were reaping the benefits of new technologies, other sectors of society were getting left out.

Most at risk were those in rural areas were public transport is intermittent and access to information is hardest.

Mr Revell said that the government could consider imposing a universal service obligation on providers of mobile and networking to ensure that those living in the countryside enjoyed the same levels of access to technologies.

Without concrete action, rural areas face the prospect of falling ever further behind, and perhaps even being cut off completely from the benefits new technologies can bring, warns the report.

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