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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 June, 2005, 07:26 GMT 08:26 UK
Reaching out to digital refuseniks
Jane Wakefield
BBC News technology reporter

A road with fields on either side
Is the grass greener on the other side of digital divide?
Net access has become so talked about and embedded in society that it is easy to forget that half of the UK population remain digital refuseniks.

Charities, industry and the government have all jumped on the digital divide bandwagon, expressing concern for those left out of the web world and worrying about what effect such a divide will have on society.

But the term digital divide is becoming irrelevant as digital devices permeate the majority of homes, argues Ian Fogg, an analyst with Jupiter Research.

"It seems an odd term given the preponderance of digital products in our lives. What would be more helpful, and what most people mean by digital divide, is access to the internet via a PC," he said.

While mobile phones and, increasingly, digital TV become ubiquitous, half of UK homes do not have a PC and a third of adults have no access to the internet at home or work.

New divides

For William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, choosing not to go online is very different to deciding what TV programme to watch.

"The net has the power to be transformative both in terms of enhancing and expanding social relationships and in providing information that you won't see elsewhere," he said.

The belief that the digital divide will somehow automatically heal itself as technology becomes more prevalent and access cheaper and more widely available is a dangerous one, he thinks.

Several surveys suggest that cost is less of a barrier than it used to be and, as early adopters take advantage of wi-fi and broadband, the divide is actually getting wider.

Mr Dutton also sees new divides appearing among those who are regular net users, between those who are merely passive consumers of the technology and those who use it to create their own content, such as blogs and podcasts.

Spreading the word

John Fisher heads up Citizens Online, a charity which exists solely to address the issue of digital inclusion. For him, it is all about making sure people are aware of the options.

"I don't see it as a matter of choice, of people opting out. Yes, there will always be a rump of Luddites but for the vast majority they just haven't been given the choice," he said.

That choice comes down to barriers such as an innate fear of technology, horror stories in the media about viruses and online fraud, lack of confidence and skill and perhaps, most importantly, not seeing the relevance of the internet to everyday life, said Mr Fisher.

Vodafone Simply
Vodafone responded to calls for a basic mobile phone
While formal training courses offered in places such as the government-funded UK Online centres have a function, they can often be daunting and irrelevant for those with no understanding of technology or the net.

Citizens Online take a different approach, creating a social network of intermediaries in community workers such as health visitors, encouraging them to spread the net gospel among the unconverted.

Alongside this, it has more specific projects which target particular groups, such as the homeless or the over-55s, focusing in on specific ways that individuals can improve their lives and opening doors to, for example, a whole community of like-minded hobbyists.

In areas that have been targeted in this way, there have been concrete results with statistics suggesting that both general net usage and home access have increased, in some cases by as much as 25%.

And there is some evidence, said Mr Fisher that people from deprived areas, the elderly and the disabled will find the experience of going online life-changing.

There will be practical gains, such as finding schools in the area or job opportunities and more general awareness of local and government services.

For those marginalised from mainstream society, such as the homeless, the internet can open up channels of communication with families which may have long been closed.

Shopping online

For some groups in society the internet can open up more practical doors of opportunity.

For blind and partially-sighted people, something as simple as being able to shop online can make a huge difference which is why the RNIB (Royal National Institute of the Blind) worked closely with retail giant Tesco to make its website accessible to blind and partially-sighted people.

The system has opened up a previously untapped market for Tesco.

Since the collaboration, it has increased its revenue by 30m, said Julie Howell, digital policy manager for the RNIB, proving that there can be a commercial gain as well as a social one.

With the UK government estimating that as many as 85% of jobs require some form of technology skill, getting to grips with computers can offer lucrative benefits for those who had previously not been part of the workforce.

Back to basics

A program called Workability organised by disability charity Leonard Cheshire provides users with a computer and offers them an online course which they can complete at their own pace.

Of those involved in the project, 50% have gone on to either full-time or part-time work and a further 15% have found voluntary work.

There can be more trivial but no less important spin-offs too.

For the severely disabled who live in Leonard Cheshire care homes, the introduction of computer rooms has created a new and popular hobby, in the form of online bingo.

Of all the sections of society that have been singled out as being on the wrong side of the digital divide, older people are perhaps set to gain the most.

The net can keep their often dwindling social networks alive, re-ignite interest in old hobbies and, perhaps most importantly, help them to maintain a place in a society which increasingly marginalises those who do not have youth on their side.

When they do get online, older people tend to be huge net enthusiasts. It is a challenge for net providers to recognise this and readjust their youth and family-orientated marketing at this new market, said Emma Aldridge of charity Age Concern.

There is some evidence manufacturers are beginning to look to this untapped market with products such as Vodafone's recently released back-to-basics handset.

In a challenge to industry, Mr Fisher of Citizens Online called for a similarly pared down computer, with basic functionality.

"It would provide an excellent first step," he said.

Small box 'to end digital divide'
29 Apr 05 |  Technology
Dealing with a digital underclass
29 Apr 05 |  Technology
Digital divisions tackled head-on
02 Apr 05 |  Technology
Millions to miss out on the net
08 Dec 04 |  Technology

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