Digital divide in the UK?

We are at a tipping point in the online world. Discussion is shifting focus from the advantages of having access to the online world, towards the active disadvantage of not being connected.

The rapid growth of the internet over the last 20 years is dramatically changing the way we live, work and consume – from online television to e-commerce; online banking to e-government public services.

In June 2009, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, remarked that a fast internet connection is now seen by most of the public as an essential service, as indispensable as electricity, water and gas.

The problem of unequal access

Figures released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in 2009, reveal that 30% of households in the Britain still did not have internet access.

Even though the majority of people in Britain have the internet, 10 million remain offline. Of those, 4 million are the most socially and economically vulnerable.

95% of adults with a degree or equivalent qualification were estimated to live in a household with internet access. Those with no formal qualification were least likely with just 52%. There is a clear link between social and digital exclusion. There is a danger that as more services and opportunities are delivered online, those who lack online access or the skills needed to take advantage of it, will be further disadvantaged.

A geographical divide can also be seen in recent figures. London is estimated to have the highest level of access (80%), while Scotland and the North East had the lowest levels of access (62-66%). These figures closely follow a similar disparity of wealth across Britain.


Skills and education

“In the public sector, universities, schools and libraries are increasingly becoming reliant on electronic content and the richness of the internet.”

— Digital Britain 2009

There is growing acceptance that access to the internet and IT play an important role in helping schoolchildren gain the necessary skills to get good jobs. This in turn helps the UK become a more highly-skilled and productive workforce, able to adapt to an ever-changing job market.

It is important that people not only have access to the internet, but are supported and encouraged to develop skills to make best use of online resources and services. In a 21st century knowledge economy, equality of access is needed to help ensure an equality of opportunity.

At the Labour Party conference in September 2008 the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced plans for a £300m initiative to provide every schoolchild with broadband internet access at home. Under these proposals parents are to be offered vouchers worth up to £700 to buy computers and internet connection for the 1.4m children growing up in homes without a computer in Britain.

The dawn of a digital government

You can’t be a proper citizen of our society in the future if you are not online

— Martha Lane Fox

The Digital Britain Report (2009) is government initiative that sets the strategic vision for ensuring that the UK is at the leading edge of the global digital economy. Included in this is a plan to digitise certain areas of government services through what is called a ‘Digital Switchover of Public Services’ by 2012. This is the year that government aim to have 2Mb high speed broadband internet available to the whole of the UK.

The government maintain that this move will ensure improved public services and provide an opportunity to cut costs, an argument few challenge in the current economic climate. It is estimated that 80% of government interactions with the public take place with the bottom 25% of society, so failing to encourage everyone online keeps government costs high.

Can’t connect, won’t connect and the Digital Inclusion Champion

Martha Lane Fox, the government’s newly appointed Digital Inclusion Champion and co-founder of renowned website, is tasked with closing the digital divide in Britain. Lane-Fox’s role as head of the Digital Inclusion Task Force, is to represent those who are both socially and digitally excluded, helping to transform the lives of those currently excluded by allowing them to access to the benefits of digital technologies.

Many people are simply unable to go online, often due to issues of affordability, accessibility, lack of skills or motivation. However those not connected in Britain are not just made up of people who can’t go online but those who choose not to. In her new role Martha will help to breakdown the perceived irrelevance of the internet by promoting the transformative effects that the computer and the internet can have on people’s lives.

A worrying sign for those planning a digital revolution is that the rate at which people are becoming new users in Britain is slowing.

The danger for those who choose to remain offline is that they will pay a price. This is already the case with the growth of online discounts. Many shops and businesses, such as airlines and high street shops offer reduced prices for purchasing goods online. Research shows that net of the cost of the computer and of the connection, people using the web save £276 per year.

As well as the government’s plans to shift some public services online after 2012, a common fear is the rise in the number of jobs that only accept online applications. Citizens with no access to a computer or the internet are increasingly running the risk of being marginalised in the job market.

The challenges will be ensuring that people do not feel pressured into using the internet, but are instead inspired to do so.

Who is part of the Digital Inclusion Task Force?

The Task Force includes the following experts in digital and social policy from the public, private and third sector who will help create Martha Lane Fox’s strategy for Digital Inclusion.

Anna Bradley As chair of Ofcom’s independent Communications Consumer Panel, Anna champions consumers’ interests in today’s fast-changing communication sector. She has also worked at the Financial Services Authority and the National Consumer Council.

Kevin Carey Kevin runs ATcare, a charity that consults on questions of access to digital inclusion, and is chairman of one of the UK’s biggest charities, the Royal National Institute of the Blind. He’s a keen advocate of how technology can advance social justice, including for those with disabilities.

Phil Coppard Phil, as chief executive of Barnsley Council, is behind one of the government’s flagship digital inclusion projects: training South Yorkshire citizens to work as digital outreach trainers to raise skillsets within their own community.

Professor Jonathan Drori A former head of commissioning for BBC Online and head of digital media for BBC Education, Jonathan now runs the Changing Media consultancy, which advises government on digital content and inclusion.

Emma Gilthorpe Emma, as the director of  industry policy and regulation for BT, is responsible for framing the UK’s largest communications service provider’s public policy positions, including infrastructure investment (more relevant?).

Seetha Kumar As the BBC’s controller of Online, Seetha’s responsibilities include shaping the broadcaster’s strategy towards the roll-out of high-definition TV (something more relevant here?).

Catherine Marshall Catherine is chair of the Lighthouse Project, which runs five community centres in the Midlands: giving her first-hand experience of how technology can be used to tackle social problems.

Helen Milner Managing director of UK Online, which runs 6,000 centres to supply millions of people with access to computers and the internet on the behalf of the government. Helen has worked in the e-learning industry for more than 20 years.

Tristan Wilkinson As director for public sector in the UK for Intel, the world’s largest computer chip maker, Tristan is in charge of Intel’s expansion in education, healthcare and market. He has worked with governments across EMEA to develop digital inclusion initiatives, including the launch of the UK’s Home Computing Initiative.

Tom Wright As chief executive of Age Concern and Help the Aged, Tom represents the needs and concerns of the largest proportion of digitally excluded people in the UK.