Page last updated at 10:40 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 11:40 UK

Need to tackle 'social' notspots

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

People at a UK Online centre
Centres in deprived areas can help ignite web interest

The latest research from the Communications Consumer Panel, set up to advise government on broadband issues, has found that nearly three-quarters of Britons think broadband is vital to their lives. Not everyone in the country agrees.

Some 17 million people in the UK - 30% of the population - are estimated to be offline because they simply don't want it.

Some have opted out for economic reasons while others believe broadband has no relevance to their lives.

It is a problem acknowledged by government, as it realises that social and digital exclusion are increasingly walking hand in hand.

UK Online Centres were set up specifically to offer free access in deprived areas. With 6,000 centres now around the UK, take-up has been on the rise.

Helen Milner, head of UK Online Centres, believes that at least half of the 30% of those choosing not to go online are simply held back by fear.

"They don't have the skills or the confidence or don't believe that can afford it," she said.

Family benefit

Rubi
Rubi has found lots of new benefits to being online

A project with 40 of the poorest families from the Aberfeldy Estate in Tower Hamlets, East London offered free broadband and technical support for six months.

Afterwards some 56% purchased a broadband service and almost all continued to use the internet at libraries and other public access points.

Ninety seven percent of those offered support in their homes said the internet had made a difference to their lives.

"They realised that broadband had become an essential part of their lives," said Ms Milner.

Rubi, a 25-year-old mother of two, is typical of the residents involved in the scheme.

"We've been and looked at all sorts of information on all sorts of sites, from search engines, to family benefit stuff on Directgov, to kids' games on CBeebies," she said.

She is now e-mailing friends in India rather than sending hand-written letters, is banking online and has drawn up a new CV.

There are obviously costs involved with getting a computer and buying a broadband service which puts some people off.

But increasingly studies suggest that the savings that can be made from being online outweigh the initial set-up costs.

The latest of these, from consultancy firm SQW Consulting, found that the average UK household could make savings of up to £70 a month by using the web for shopping.

It estimated that the upfront costs of broadband access, including the purchase of a computer, could pay for themselves within six months.

For those already connected, online shopping is preferred over the high street because of the lower costs offered by online retailers, the discounts which are offered exclusively on the net and the proliferation of price comparison websites.

The SQW Consulting report estimated that people could save an average of 8% on clothes, 6% on utility bills and 16% on holidays by shopping online.

Roger Darlington sits on the Ofcom Consumer Panel thinks a government-backed education campaign is vital.

"It is no longer enough to provide cheap services or equipment. There needs to be a campaign with the message that if you think you don't need broadband, think again.

Some of the money to fund a push towards dealing with the digital excluded could come from the current pot of money set aside to help people cope with digital switchover.

"That is targeted at the socially isolated who are the same people likely to be without broadband. Some sort of support or the chance to experience it could be put on the back of that," he said.

Those living in social housing are among the most digitally excluded, with 70% cut off from the technology.

It is a problem that needs to be addressed thinks Ms Milner.

"We need to work with landlords to see if there are things the can do to help tenants get online," she said.

Superfast estates

A tower block
Tower blocks make economic sense for fibre providers

In some areas the approach to the problem has been radical with schemes to lay superfast fibre to some of the most deprived parts of the UK, including estates in Glasgow, Hull and Carlisle.

For providers the tower blocks of these estates represent rich pickings because it is much cheaper to run fibre to a high-rise with many residents than it is to run it to a sparsely populated area.

"High density housing is attractive. Networks have to be economically sustainable but there must also be value to people. Without people the network is silent," said Guy Jarvis, managing director of FibreStream.

FibreStream is planning on rolling out fibre to an estate in Hull. Working with the Goodwin Trust Housing Association, the network could eventually serve 5,000 people.

For residents it offers a cheap way to hook up to High Definition TV.

"The triple play of voice, ultra-fast broadband and TV is attractive to people. To get even free HD content involves having a satellite dish and a set-top box and not everyone can afford it," said Mr Jarvis.

But there are some very real social benefits too.

The NHS is involved in some pioneering schemes to deliver remote care, which offer cost savings for the government and convenience for patients. but will ultimately depend on fast connections.

A fast broadband connection can also increase job opportunities, allowing people not just to use the net to find work but allowing them to work from home as well.

And for the younger members of the family the internet is fast becoming a must-have educational tool.

The government has embraced the need to persuade citizens of these benefits, appointing the first ever digital inclusion cabinet minister in the shape of Paul Murphy.

It is also due imminently to appoint an independent Digital Champion to address the issue.

The battle is on to persuade the refuseniks to embrace broadband.



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