Monday, September 11, 2006

Different dimensions of the digital divide

According to some recently released figures almost 60% of households in Great Britain (13.9 million) now have home Internet access (source: Internet access: households and individuals, Office for National Statistics, 23rd August 2006). This represents a big jump of around 26% since 2002 and is around 5% up on last year's figure. Moreover nearly 70% of households with Internet access have a broadband connection. To put it another way about 40% of UK households now have broadband Internet access.

It would appear that the government strategy of leaving it to the market to deal with the matter of Internet access, with government limiting its role to providing appropriate regulation via Ofcom to ensure competition, has been working. However these national figures do hide some noticeable regional variations. For example, while two-thirds of households in London and the South-East of England have some kind of Internet access at home, in Scotland and Northern Ireland the figure is closer to 50%.

The reasons for this geographical digital divide are varied. The problem of reach has now largely been overcome. At one time there was a marked urban/rural divide and this to a large part could be explained by the inability of the Internet Service Providers to provide adequate connectivity to certain places in the country. Although there are a few remote locations where Internet access is physically impossible, some kind of link either via telephone lines, cable or even a wireless network is now available to most of us. So the remaining differences must be explained by non-technical factors.

One significant factor is the age of the members of the household. The ONS report reveals that 83% of people in the age range 16-24 had accessed the Internet in the three months prior to the survey, but only 15% of those in the 65 years and over group had done so. There are gender differences too - 40% of women surveyed had never used the Internet while only 30% of men had not done so. Respondents were invited to give reasons why they had chosen not to arrange home Internet access. About a quarter of the sample stated that the Internet had no interest or value for them - and about the same proportion said they lacked the skills. It could be that these are the same people, lacking both an awareness of what can be done on the Internet and the knowledge of how to use it.

Other respondents replied that equipment and/or access costs were too high. The price of PCs and laptops has fallen substantially in recent years, and the price of Internet access is also coming down as the market expands and becomes more competitive, so there should be further scope for the proportion of households with Internet access to rise still further in the future. However household income is clearly important here. A few hundred pounds may be easily found for a PC in an affluent household but impossible to justify in a poorer one. Class and race may also be a factor. Just today I came across a report on a study in the US that found white children are far more likely to use the Internet than are black and Hispanic children. (See Racial digital divide lingers among US schoolchildren, Jennifer LeClaire, TechNewsWorld 11th September 2006).

You can find many other interesting contributions to the debate about the digital divide on the web. Here I highlight just a few. On the Ofcome website you can find a Report following the Remote and Rural Communications Symposium in February 2005. There is also plenty on the Ofcom website about the need for greater liberalisation in the telecoms market to ensure that there is an appropriate market structure to guarantee efficiency in the market.

The ISOC website links to a contribtion by Madanmohan Rao
Struggling with the Digital Divide: Internet Infrastructure, Content, and Culture. Is a progressive Internet environment enough to close the gap between North and South?

The Pew Internet and American Life Project provides evidence on the age dimension to the digital divide in the US - see for example Wired Seniors: A fervent few, inspired by family ties, September 2001.

Finally go to the UN's website and read what Kofi Annan wrote back in November 2002 On the digital divide.


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