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The BBC's John Moylan
"More online access centres are believed to be at the heart of the plans"
 real 56k

Monday, 11 September, 2000, 00:17 GMT 01:17 UK
Blair's net promises
people on internet
Tony Blair wants everyone to have net access
The prime minister has announced the latest in a range of initiatives to boost internet use in the UK.

Mr Blair's ambition is driven both by his belief in the power of the internet to change lives and by a desire to end the social "digital divide".

Official figures show that people's earnings still strongly govern whether they are able to log on.

schoolgirl on net
Every school has been promised high-speed net access
Among the lowest income groups, net access is only around 3% to 6%, while 48% of higher-income households are online.

Regional differences also dictate levels of internet access, with London and the South East leading the way.

Back in March, Mr Blair told a joint CBI, TUC and government conference: "It is likely that the internet, in time, will become as ubiquitous as electricity is today.

"The knowledge economy must be an economy for the many and not the few. Universal internet access has to be available to all."

The government's plans to aid internet access were revealed at Labour's first party conference after gaining power, when Mr Blair promised a computer in every classroom by 2002.

The "National Grid for Learning" scheme, costing 700m, involved giving cash to local authorities to connect schools to the internet and provide support for teachers.

And public libraries received almost 3m for information technology projects, mostly in deprived urban communities or rural areas.

High-speed plans

Last November, the grid scheme won a boost when ministers unveiled a 50m programme of high-speed links, using broadband technology. It meant schools and other learning institutions would benefit from faster access to the internet.

At the same time, a new website called the Learning and Work Bank was announced, allowing job-seekers to view at a glance hundreds of thousands of vacancies from job centres and recruitment agencies around the UK.

Terminals would be installed in employment centres, shopping centres, libraries and even pubs, Education Secretary David Blunkett promised.

Socialising the net

Then, nine months ago, the government announced a raft of intiatives aiming to take the internet revolution to the socially excluded.

The promises included:

  • Making 100,000 recycled computers available to people who would otherwise not be able to access the internet. The computers would be leased or bought.

  • Creating 1,000 Learn Direct centres in sports clubs, pubs and churches by the end of 2001, at a cost of 252m.

  • Providing 100% of public services online by the end of 2008.

  • Upgrading the way in which the government itself provided information online, with new guidelines instructing departments to prove their "openness and responsiveness" through the information provided on the net.

  • Guaranteeing all government websites could be accessed by the blind using voice technology.

    Just as these government initiatives were making headlines, NHS Direct Online was launched, allowing web users to check medical symptoms and receive advice.

    Cabinet Office Minister Ian McCartney admitted online opportunities had been missed in the past, but pledged the UK would be at the forefront of the internet revolution.

    Mr Blair said he believed the internet would change the way people behaved socially, as well as transform business dealings.

    Job-seeking in the pub

    Three months later, in March this year, the government set out a series of further suggestions aimed at closing the gap between technology haves and have-nots in the UK.

    A report, called Closing the Digital Divide, said people in all deprived urban areas should have access to computers, the internet, e-mail and other emerging information and communication technologies.

    The fresh recommendations included:

  • Setting up internet points in places where people feel at ease, such as pubs, community centres, post offices and bus and train stations.

  • The provision of technology to help people with transport difficulties do their shopping and make use of government services and healthcare.

  • And the government promised to give every job-seeker a voucher for free computer training, worth about 400 each.

    Ministers' latest plans to extend internet use include offering tax breaks to companies willing to lend computers to employees, and offering new web users 80% discounts on basic IT courses.

    However, the government's plans were dealt a blow when e-envoy Alex Allan quit after less than a year in the job, for personal reasons, leaving ministers with no-one in charge of its internet technology strategy.

    An open competition to find a successor will be launched in a couple of weeks' time.

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