Page last updated at 10:15 GMT, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A look behind the digital divide

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

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Jane Wakefield meets the mothers in Sheffield who are struggling to afford internet connections

A few years ago Annamarie Cope was definitely on the wrong side of the UK's digital divide.

While she was a regular at the Green Way Online Centre in Nottingham, it was not to use the computers but to score drugs from behind the building.

"One day I was collecting my drugs and I decided to walk into the front door instead," she said.

"I was absolutely petrified and was thinking 'get me out of here, I'm in way above my head'," she said.

But she stayed, did some basic computing courses and has lost count of the number of recruits - drawn from friends and family - she has since introduced to the centre.

Growing up in what she describes as a dysfunctional family, Annamarie became hooked on heroin, amphetamines and crack cocaine at an early age.

The internet could not have been further from her mind.

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"The only social circle I knew was drug-related. I thought computers were for the upper-classes," she said.

But a chance conversation with a friend made her realise that she needed to get away from the drugs culture she had adopted.

Now she has internet connectivity at home, "couldn't live without it" and is studying towards a diploma in counselling.

She is the typical of the person the government is keen to recruit in its effort to persuade 7.5 million more people online by 2014.

For those cut off from society, computers are increasingly seen as a way of bringing people back into a more mainstream life, not just because of the opportunities the web offers to re-enter education or the job market but because it is increasingly a social interface, thanks to networks such as Facebook.

Unaffordable

Tracey, Emma and her children

Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox is spearheading a campaign to recruit four million nonliners, from the "less well-off", a sector of society, traditionally disconnected from the web.

She faces an uphill job and, even if more can be tempted online, there is no guarantee they will stay there if the experiences of a group of single mums from the Abney estate in Sheffield is anything to go by.

Living on benefits, being online is a luxury they simply can't afford despite plenty of enthusiasm.

It is estimated that even families on a low income could save around £200 a year and increasingly broadband providers are offering packages for as little as £5 a month.

But neighbours Emma Costello and Tracey Edge are not convinced they can afford it.

Along with other neighbour Jaqui Dowling, they are inexperienced in their use of the web but do see the benefits.

Jaqui is the most experienced of the three. She is online at home and is hoping to set up a web business, selling clay models she makes of famous people but she has no idea how to go about it and is hopeful the nearby Heeley online centre can help her.

Meanwhile Emma and Tracey both have access to a machine at home but feel they do not have either sufficient money or skills to have permanent access to it.

Tracey has a PC gathering dust in the back bedroom because she doesn't know how to use it and doesn't have the money to connect it while neighbour Emma is about to give up her access because she can no longer afford it.

Both have recently begun to go along to their local online centre to gain some more confidence and new skills.

"I'm desperate to get a job," said Tracey, who is using the Heeley Online Centre for job searches and to write a CV.

Disconnected homes

A Job Point inside a Jobcentre Plus
Job centres are going online

Being online is becoming increasingly crucial for job hunters.

Some 13% of advertised jobs in the UK only accept online applications and that figure is set to grow.

The government is keen to target job-seekers and it intends to pilot a scheme that will see PCs installed in 50 job centres, with a view to eventually rolling more out more nationally.

The machines will offer access to the wider net as well as job sites.

Tracey's neighbour, Emma does have a working laptop at home, a Christmas gift to the family from her father. She uses it mainly for socialising and catching up on Facebook but it is a luxury that she soon won't be able to afford.

"Currently my dad pays for the dongle but that ends in June and then we will only be able to put money on it when we can afford it," she said.

For daughter Abbie, the loss of the internet will be a big blow.

"A lot of our homework needs us to be done online," she said.

Most children of school-age now use a computer at school and, increasingly, the internet is being embedded in the curriculum.

The problem of the disconnect between online schools and offline homes is one that the government is trying to address with its Home Access scheme.

Launched last year, the scheme offers vouchers, worth up to £528, to households with school-age children who are entitled to free school dinners.

It entitles users to a laptop or desktop preloaded with a variety of software packages as well as a year's worth of broadband connectivity.

So far over 55,000 Home Access applications have been approved and some 18,500 families have taken up the vouchers.

'Not interested'

Children using laptops
Most children use computers and the internet at school

The government has been criticised in the past for simply giving away computers.

In previous schemes, free equipment was immediately sold on for a profit - something the government is wise to this time around.

"So far just one machine has been found on Cash Converters and three on eBay," said Nick Shacklock, director of the Home Access Programme at Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency), the body overseeing the scheme.

All involved have been sent letters asking them to remove the items for sale or face prosecution.

"They are breaking the terms of their agreements," said Mr Shacklock.

While most will use their machines, critics question how committed people will stay to the scheme once the free broadband is used up.

According to Mr Shacklock some 60% of those signed up say they will pay for their own access when the grant runs out.

But there is one hardcore group of nonliners that even the lure of a free PC would not tempt to go online.

According to an Ofcom study published last year, 43% of those offline would remain so even if they were given a free PC and broadband connection.

A recent survey conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) gave an indication of why - 80% of nonliners they interviewed said they were "just not interested".

For Bill Dutton, of the OII, this group of digital refuseniks remain the biggest challenge for government.

"That is the real conundrum - how you get someone to try something they are inherently uninterested in," said Mr Dutton.



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