The Great Digital Deficit

Almost three years ago, I wrote a feature for The Observer, ‘Welcome to the aftermath of the old economy’ and in it I asked if it was possible to solve the challenge of the so-called ‘Digital Divide’ in the time the government imagined was possible.

Since then of course, we’ve witnessed some remarkable changes. My local post-office in London is now crammed wall-to-wall with young South Africans picking-up their Hotmail but my home town in Kent ninety miles away, still hasn’t a PC in sight although its Iraqi population has swollen significantly over the last twelve months. Broadband here is no closer than Baghdad, which last week opened its first Internet Café, ahead of BT, which promises to upgrade the local exchange once the weapons inspectors have left this quiet seaside town.

But a country has to start somewhere and government generously funded the expansion of six thousand UK Online Centres in an effort to guarantee Internet access for the fifty million or so people who can’t find it elsewhere. Funding these centres has cost £370 million to date and since the Prime Minister enthused about the programme at the eSummit in November, I’ve been wondering how long government could afford to fund the programme. After all, PCs in a public access environment aren’t likely to last long, so what happens when the next technology refit is demanded in eighteen months?

It appears that the National Audit Office (NAO) has been asking the same questions and The New Opportunities Fund (NOF) has stated that “Lottery money is unlikely to be a source of future revenue funding for UK Online centres, as this money is intended to be used for specific, one-off, interventions that are time-limited”.

In fact, the report by the NAO states "Moreover, some of those centres most placed to reach disadvantaged target groups are likely to be least able to find funds from elsewhere". It continues: "If UK Online centres are forced to close, it is not clear whether there will be sufficient resources available to set up a replacement in the vicinity".

Unfortunately, not only is the programme expensive but there’s very limited information on who is actually using the services provided, which leaves us with 6000, very expensive UK Online centres to be maintained and a digital deficit of around forty million citizens, a gap which is unlikely to be closed without, in my estimation, another £500 million being injected over the next five years.

There is I suspect very little hope of government being able to find this kind of money without the rest of us feeling more pain than that which year will already bring us in higher taxes, so it rather begs the question, is the UK Online initiative sustainable within some kind of public private sector partnership?

In the cities and larger towns, where businesses are more likely to afford some kind of sponsorship, then maybe. But in those areas where the UK Online concept is most needed, it may, as the NAO fears, risk becoming like other, more essential services, a brand more characterised by its absence than its evidence and a monument to the indivisibility of the so-called digital divide.


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