Page last updated at 11:56 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

Closing the UK's digital divisions

Sale sign, PA
Deals mean broadband is cheaper than ever

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

With broadband available on a monthly basis for less than 10 and laptops being given away free with some packages, there seems little reason for people not to be online.

But 17 million people in the UK are not and the digital divide is increasingly cutting people off both socially and financially.

The government has shown renewed willingness to tackle the issue with the appointment of the first ever digital inclusion cabinet minister in January 2008.

Paul Murphy and deputy Wayne David are working on a strategy to persuade the significant number of UK nonliners to see value in the online world.

The government has devised a 70-point action plan which is out to consultation with industry until January and it intends to appoint a so-called Digital Champion, a non-government figurehead, in early 2009.

Meanwhile business minister Lord Stephen Carter is busy preparing a report into Digital Britain which will be ready in the spring.

It is likely to show that the digital divide is no longer a geographical issue with towns connected and rural areas cut off. Instead areas of digital exclusion are likely to mirror those of social deprivation.

"There is recognition that the digital divide is not just a factor of social exclusion but a cause of it," said Abigail Stevens, spokeswoman for UK Online Centres.

Fibre optic, Eyewire
Some poorer areas will be the first to get faster networks

There are 6,000 of these centres on high streets, in libraries and community centres around England, with the remit of helping nonliners find reasons to change their minds.

Ms Stevens welcomed the government's new approach to the issue and hopes that the Digital Champion will be someone with the charisma to carry the agenda forward.

"It has to be someone who can work with consumers, the government and business, someone with real enthusiasm for technology, someone like Johnny Ball," she said.

Cost cutting

Whether the digital champion turns out to be a maths celebrity or someone less well-known, one of his or her first jobs will be finding a way to make technology relevant to people's lives.

For Wayne David this is the number one aim.

"From disaffected youngsters to older people it should be about improving people's lives, whether that be searching for jobs, paying bills, shopping or using government services," he said.

Increasingly broadband schemes up and down the country are targeting those in the most deprived areas - a new fibre optic test bed in Manchester aimed at some of the city's poorest neighbourhoods.

With 50% of citizens in the area no longer using a landline, there is little chance that current broadband will reach them, said Dave Carter, head of the Manchester Digital Development Agency.

Woman using mobile phone, BBC
Many people have dropped landlines for mobiles

Some experts argue for the next generation of broadband - superfast services delivered via fibre and offering speeds of up to 100Mbps (megabits per second) - to target such areas first.

Ofcom's consumer panel has warned that if superfast broadband does not reach the areas most in need of connectivity the digital divide will become a "chasm".

In West Whitlawburn, a new housing development in one of the most deprived areas of Glasgow, a new community scheme is laying fibre to 112 new homes.

It will offer TV, phone and internet services running at speeds of up to 100Mbps at reduced costs to residents.

"Digital exclusion compounds social exclusion. This scheme will provide access to jobs, education and health and a community portal will bring the community together," said projects officer Chris Rothnie.

It is hoped that eventually the fibre scheme can also be rolled out to the existing estate, which comprises 645 homes.

Recent research from regulator Ofcom found that 42% of the UK population had no access to the net, which is a statistic that appears to have changed little in five years.

Being online makes huge financial sense as well as socially, according to a recent survey from the Post Office.

It found that an average household could make annual savings of 840 simply by doing their shopping online in a broad range of categories including utility bills, clothing, travel and home entertainment.

Martin Moran, head of telecoms at the Post Office thinks people are missing out.

"Many have the false impression that broadband is a luxury item but we are seeing how increasingly it is actually a money-saving utility- critical in times of economic uncertainty," he said.

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