The Digital Divide Discriminates Against 36% Of The UK's Population

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Richard George, Managing Director of GOSS, the Enterprise Content Management Company, recently bought a plasma TV from a well-known electrical retailer. He was amazed to find that online it cost £1,599.99; while in store it costs £400 more. This got him thinking about the 36% of the UK population who do not have regular or any access to the Internet whatsoever. With these figures in mind and as a matter of fairness, there’s still much work to be done to not just bridge but to curtail the digital divide.

Richard George, Managing Director of GOSS, the Enterprise Content Management Company, recently bought a plasma TV from a well-known electrical retailer. He was amazed to find that online it cost £1,599.99; while in store it costs £400 more. This got him thinking about the 36% of the UK population who do not have regular or any access to the Internet whatsoever. With these figures in mind and as a matter of fairness, there’s still much work to be done to not just bridge but to curtail the digital divide.

Not everyone can afford a plasma TV of course, and not everybody would want to buy one, but it just illustrates the savings that could be made if that 36% were web-savvy and able to access the Internet. I wonder whether there are any stores that advertise alongside the store price of the product, how much a consumer could save by going online. This would not only be useful information to the consumer, but it would also avoid any accusations of price discrimination that could be thrown at any particular supplier of consumer goods and services. Beyond that there’s still more to be done in terms of education and accessibility to the World Wide Web in terms of providing a service for those who can’t afford a PC and Internet access.

“Those less economically advantaged members of our society are discriminated against, because they are encouraged to buy using in store credit facilities, which feature high rates of interest, and so once again the poor are being asked to pay more for the same goods and services”, argues Sharron Robbie, the marketing manager at GOSS.

Campaign For Fairness

Her company would like to see everyone within society being able to access information, goods and services online. The company, which specialises in ‘intelligent’ Enterprise Content Management, doesn’t want to see the ‘Poor left stranded by the digital divide’; a claim made in a report with that same title by Lucy Sheriff on Valentines Day 2005 in The Register with reference to a European Union study which shows that only 41% of the enlarged EU are using the Internet. Before the accession of the new countries this figure stood at 45%.

She believes, like Richard George, that everyone should be able to benefit from such savings as those illustrated from the purchase of the plasma TV set – not just the 64% of the population who do have access according to the Office of National Statistics, who most probably also have the education, the knowledge and economic means to know about the savings potential of the net, and how to find them online.

So GOSS is putting its beliefs and campaign for fairness into action. In essence the company is doing its bit to eliminate the digital divide with the work they are carrying out in partnership with Teignbridge District Council. The firm has made major changes to its licensing criteria to enable the Council to offer to non-profit organisations a free web presence on the http://www.Teignbridge.info portal along with free user training on GOSS iCM software.

In a recent press release entitled, A Citizen-Centric Approach to e-Government, Judith Price Head of ICT at Teignbridge comments, “GOSS enabled this process through major changes to their licensing practices. They have helped assist us in adopting a very positive citizen-centric approach to e-Government. The availability of a free web presence means that local groups can publish up to date information readily and easily thus providing the citizens information that is specific and direct to their individual needs”.

Web Access Points

The most common place to access the World Wide Web is at home (said 86% of people involved in the ONS survey, which was published at the beginning of 2006, while a further 48% of respondents have access to it at work). Only 10% of those interviewed for the survey used a public library for web access. Incidentally the ONS report shows that more men than women used the net for online banking, while more women than men involved in the survey used it for educational purposes. Most of the adults interviewed, 92%, had used a search engine to find information and a further 78% had sent an email with an attachment during the 3 month survey period.

With this survey in mind, you might be forgiven for thinking that everything smells of roses. However, Ping Wales – Welsh IT News Online – warns that the digital divide is widening, and a report in Netimperative.com also warns that the next generation of broadband will exclude access to 6m UK homes. A recent news story in the Daily Telegraph highlighted the case of Clarissa Daly from Lincolnshire who is fed up with what are called the ‘not-spots’ where broadband access is still not available or is negligible. She lives in the quiet village of Stanton Lacey, and this is fine and dandy, but what she would like to change is the speed of her Internet connection: she wants it to work at a faster pace than it currently does. We are now in the 21st Century, so why shouldn’t she be able to?

The Geographical Divide

There is also a geographical divide, which Ping Wales believes is widening. The conclusion reached in ‘UK digital divide is widening’, by Marjorie Delwarde, cites the findings of research company Point Topic. It reveals that the Home Counties and London perform the best with 25 cable and DSL lines per 100 people in Wandsworth, for example, this number drops slightly in South Buckingham to 20 per 100. The statistics for broadband access in the rural areas of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and West Somerset tumble down to the lowest rate of 4.9 per 100 in the Western Isles.

Going further beyond the social, economic, and geographic causes of the digital divide is apathy, a lack of interest in the Internet. However, there are an increasing number of ways to access the web, including mobile, so John Wilson’s description of Wales as a big white desert in broadband terms, is he admits not quite accurate. Wilson is a member of the Wales Broadband Stakeholder Group. Even though BT has enabled most of its exchanges for ADSL broadband access, it also appears that you can be 6 miles away from one in a rural area and still not be able to get online.

Solving the Digital Divide

At Governmental levels, nationally, locally and internationally, there are a number of efforts to fill the chasm of the digital divide with the help of a social inclusion and economic development agenda.

While most reports claim that the gap is widening between those who are ‘wired up’, and those who aren’t yet, a report by BBC News Online, ‘Global digital divide ‘narrowing’, reports that the World Bank questions the United Nations campaign to increase the usage of and accessibility to technology. The organisation’s own report says that the gap between rich and poor nations is rapidly narrowing with half of the world’s population now having access to a fixed-line telephone and 77% have access to a mobile network.

However, the World Summit for the Information Society argues in February 2005 that the gap is very real and that it needs to be addressed. The summit discussed the proposal of the establishment of a ‘Digital Solidarity Fund.’ With an eye on the Commonwealth during the 2006 games, I should also mention that the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation is also involved in bridging the gap around the world.

Meanwhile, back in the UK’s public sector, local authorities in England, according to John Hayes – Director of Services at the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) in his e-Gov Monitor article, ‘Overcoming the Digital Divide’, were expected to be capable of delivering many of their services online by the end of 2005, with around £60m having been invested in developing e-Government. Even within this sector Hayes recognises that this revolution doesn’t as yet extend to everyone.

Here emerges two others groups of people that may find access to the Internet difficult: those with learning difficulties and physical disabilities. Hayes believes that herein lies a distinct irony; these groups in spite of their web accessibility problems are the ones that will most gain from what is termed as the ‘digital transformation’.

So the key issue is not just whether they have access to PC in order to go online, and whether they have a broadband connection, but also it comes down to whether the technology like Browse Aloud’s solutions for the blind enables them to gain access to the content, and whether web sites are fully tested for web performance and accessibility compliance (i.e to the Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines, and the Disability Discrimination Act).

A study commissioned by IDeA shows that as a result of these issues they have installed a number of kiosks in public places, including community centres and shopping malls. From these users can access a selection of pages, about council services and local information for example, as well as send emails and video mail for free. If you are in a wheel chair though, the height of these touch screen, web cam-enabled kiosks could prove restrictive. The annual rental cost is also high at £18,000, but on the positive side it does widen the number of available access points in geographic terms.

Some councils are also adopting other innovative approaches, including the deployment of interactive television to widen the accessibility base. In comparison this is a less costly option with an annual cost of £10,000 over three channels. The local authorities that have engaged this method of communication and for making transactions have again provided this service either free or at an inexpensive rate. On the downside not everyone has an iTV set, and not everyone can yet afford Sky digital or another cable or satellite TV service. So I wonder whether this initiative will actually solve anything. Mobile technology perhaps opens up a more effective opportunity, considering that nearly everyone has a mobile phone handset.

To the British Government this is an important issue. The Department for Education and Employment has established several pilot projects. In England it has awarded seven communities on the wrong side of the digital divide £10m, these are: Kensington (Liverpool), The Carpenters Estate in Newham (East London), Framlingham (Suffolk), BeaconNet (East Manchester), Whitebirk Estate (Blackburn), Alston (Cumbria), and Brampton upon Deame (South Yorkshire). A similar exercise is being undertaken in Scotland.

What do These Projects Involve?

According to flexibility.co.uk these projects will involve:

·    The testing of a range of narrowband and broadband technologies, including satellite communications and digital TV;

·    The development of community-based portals to encourage people to learn and find employment online and to develop information communication technology (ICT) skills;

·    The creation of portals to support community activities;

·    School children in pre-selected areas being given lap top computers for use in school at while they are at home.

The Government’s Policy Action Team 15 believes that wiring up these communities will provide the following benefits:

·    The acquisition of knowledge and the development of skills;

·    The development of self-confidence within individuals and self-esteem;

·    The enablement of the pursuit of leisure interests and activities;

·    The development of e-Democracy in terms of allowing such communities to broadcast their opinions and ideas, and campaign on a national and global footing;

·    And the support and development of entrepreneurialism and small businesses.

At ground level, beyond the research and proliferation of access to ICT, the government and businesses alike need to do everything to increase literacy rates, not just in terms of technology, but also with regards to reading and basic skills. Indeed this isn’t something that should be focused just on schoolchildren with learning difficulties, because it should also be available to adult learning centres, to which adults without ICT should be encouraged and motivated to either attend or to sit down and teach themselves. ?

Let’s face it, not everyone without access to the web is incapable of doing so. There may be educated individuals of all ages who’ve yet to plunge into cyberspace for a variety of reasons. However, everyone from any background and ability should be given the opportunity of not just saving money by exploiting better consumer product and service deals online, but also that of being part of the global village in 2006, and why not? Just maybe retailers should also be more open about the online offers and cost savings versus that within their stores too, so that we can also live in a fairer society, which in turns creates a larger online market.

By Graham Jarvis

Editor and Media Services Consultant

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Editor’s Notes

About GOSS Interactive

GOSS provides managed services and intelligent and enterprise-wide content management solutions. GOSS solutions are based on a sound understanding of your requirements and the technology we use to meet your customers’ needs. Learn more about GOSS Brand Values at http://www.gossinteractive.com/index.cfm?articleid=678.

Additional stories and case studies about GOSS can be found on its website at http://www.gossinteractive.com and on http://www.media-insert.co.uk.

To contact GOSS for further information, please call +44 (0) 1752 517 350.

Visit GOSS at Internet World 2006 – 9-11 May 2006, Earls’ Court, London.

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