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Last Updated: Monday, 24 November 2003, 11:35 GMT
The internet refuseniks
Dot.life - Where tech and life collide, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Just because internet access is now widely available, that does not mean everyone will want to use it. What will it take to get the whole population online?

If there is a truth universally acknowledged about the internet, it is that more people need to get access to it.

The aim of everyone - young and old, the haves and the have-nots - being able to surf the net is one governments and social policy advisers regularly pledge their commitment to.

In and of itself, they say, the net is a good thing and something that is worthwhile for us to know our way around.

The slogan "Net access for everyone" is the kind of simple idea beloved of governments, not least because progress towards this goal is relatively easy to measure.

Already, 48% of households in the UK can access the internet from home, compared with just 9% five years ago.

Cynics would say, net access is likely to get easier even if the government does nothing.

Net refuseniks

But is this commitment to universal access desirable? Do we all need what the web has on offer - not to mention an easy way to get online - or should it simply be accepted that some people want nothing to do with the net?

James Crabtree, the research director of iSociety, says universal access is a good thing for governments to back.

"I think the internet will eventually become like running water - the idea that someone does not have running water is seen as bad.

"You have to get things moving somehow, and the 100% target is a good way to do that. It's entirely legitimate for governments to be promoting that - the benefits accruing from it outweigh what you would get from investing in something else."

A survey carried out by the Oxford Internet Institute shows that the aim of universal access has broadly been achieved - the majority of the population is able to get online in at least two of the four places web access is available - at home, at work, at school or in a local library. Only 4% of Britons lack somewhere close by that they can surf the net.

And Oftel now demands a telephone line that can support a modem speed of 28.8kbps is the minimum people can expect.

Mind the age gap

But just because people can get online does not mean that they habitually use the net.

Pensioner using computer, PA
Silver surfers are being won over
Not least because the first half of the population to rush to get online are the easy ones - they were always going to find it useful. It's the final few who might be harder to win over.

"What makes the biggest difference is age, it is the single biggest influence," says Professor Richard Rose, the director of the Oxford Internet Institute, who oversaw the research.

Unsurprisingly, older people do not make as much use of the net as youngsters - not least because they have become accustomed to doing the things that can be done online in other ways, says Professor Rose.

"If you have reached the age of 55 without having done e-commerce or e-mail and you can use the telephone, then why would you turn to the net? Most internet facilities provide things that people were already doing before the net came along."

What tends to win these "refuseniks" over is if they suddenly discover some previously undiscovered - and useful - application online.

Access all areas

And this is where it gets much more troublesome for governments pushing for 100% net access. For if we all can easily get online, then all the things we are used to being able to do in the real world need to be on the net, up and running and straight-forward to use.

ballpoint pen, BBc
Some prefer the old ways
Professor Rose says the important question for the government is what it does next, once universal access is achieved. And that is a much tougher task that simply providing the wires.

For local and central government, it involves a huge amount of work to put all their services online by 2005. In an age when even regulations on burial at sea have made it to the web, everyday tasks - such as checking how much is left on your council tax bill for the year - must also be online.

Local government progress towards the 2005 goal is patchy, according to the online newsletter e-Gov Monitor, which analysed the statements local authorities prepare to show how their move to electronic government is going.

While some authorities are confident of hitting that target, some worry about the cost of reaching it - and some do not mention it at all. Many are waiting for the outcome of so-called "pathfinder" projects run by central government that could do a lot of their work for them.

But, as Mary Pittaway of the e-government firm Steria points out, the most important part of putting services online is the culture change it forces in local government.

The best projects use the change as an opportunity to overhaul their internal processes too.

Without that, change barely goes skin deep and, as a result, plans to get everyone using the net may struggle.

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