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Asleep at the Wheel

It was 2001 when I commented on a Gartner Group report which suggested that a whole generation of up to fifty million Americans could become 'functionally illiterate' in the future due to a lack of knowledge of, or access to, the internet.

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This, I wrote in The Observer newspaper, was a warning to the UK, which was still at the start of a national internet strategy and I continued: “In Britain, where a quarter of homes are believed to have access to the internet, one can sit comfortably inside the well-connected embrace of the M25 and imagine the benefits of the new dot-communism reaching equally in all directions. But look less than a hundred miles into the South East, as far as Margate perhaps, and the gap between new- and old-economy imagination and aspiration starts to resemble a chasm.”

Today, I’ve downshifted and become a telecommuter, like tens of thousands of others in this country. In fact, I’m now not so far from Margate, with the sea in front of my window at the end of a 2Mb wireless connection to the internet. I’m even running, as a hobby, the area’s first online newspaper, Thanet, which goes to illustrate how far we’ve come as a society in four years.

Back in 2001, Gartner had identified three digital divides: access to the internet; a skills gap between those who know how to benefit from the internet and those who don't; and speed of access to the internet. This week, a second report, just in time for the election, The Oxford Internet Institute reveals that that internet access in Britain “Has plateaued, at 60%, barely moving from 59% in 2003, and that we are a long way behind the US and parts of Scandinavia.”

This research broadly agrees with Ofcom’s and BT’s own figures and strongly suggests that the so-called digital divide is something that will remain with us for the foreseeable future, with a hard-core of resistance from parts of the population who feel that the internet is too difficult, too insecure or simply too irrelevant to become involved with.

When I worked with the Office of the e-Envoy (OeE) between 2000 and 2002, this fear of not being able to reach parts of the population was a source real concern to us all. As an example, research showed that those who were likely to use digital television to access government services, young, single mothers and the elderly, were unlikely to use the internet to do the same and yet it was the internet that central government, in the shape of Tony Blair, Patricia Hewitt and Andrew Pinder were promoting as the channel of the future.

Now it appears as if access to the internet is no different from schools or hospitals or anything else in our society, those who need it most are still likely to be disadvantaged by geography, by income, by inclination or by education, which will leave us with that 30% of the population, some of whom inhabit some of the tougher and bleaker areas within ten miles of my house, outside the advantages offered by the World Wide Web, which can be considerable, in a society pushing more and more towards online ecommerce, financial and public services.

Any new government is going to require a sharp strategic review of its internet strategy. As a wired society, we’re doing well but not well enough and the availability of 1GB domestic connections in Hong Kong from next month, loss of Rover and Steve Ballmer’s glowing praise, this week, of Dubai, as a new “Hub” society, should serve as a sharp wake-up call to our political leaders that we can’t afford the emergence of an internet underclass.

It was in that same Observer newspaper column that I concluded “We are in danger of losing our ability to manage the expectations of an increasingly wired society. Technology can help fulfil our ambitions, but it doesn't do much for people who can't afford ambition. Almost five years later, this sounds like a prophesy come true.


David Brunnen said…
and in the world of Mobile Broadband for business users the UK is now behind South Africa as well as Australia and other countries. See for example or

Having campaigned for three years to get the UK regulator to allow an auction a smidgeon of underutilised spectrum for this type of service we are now told it could be another three years before it might be possible !

Hands up all those who complain that investors seem unwilling to put money into UK telecoms infrastructure. Hands up all those who would like to see more competition?

Now, hands up all those who would say that they really understand the economic impacts of spectrum efficiency.

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