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Tackling the "digital divide"

...if we can find out what it is...

Current approaches to tackling the divide

New forms of enterprise, new types of skills, new sources of wealth and new forms of social interaction - these are among the benefits of the "Information Society". Businesses and governments alike promote the new technologies for the benefits they will bring.

But, if these developments are seen as being beneficial, then the lack of them is seen as a cause for concern. Many people, mostly those already poor or socially disadvantaged in some other way, cannot or do not have access to the new technologies and the opportunities they bring. These people - "socially excluded", in the current jargon - stand on the wrong side of the "digital divide". 

Action to tackle the divide

Governments across the western world are beginning to take action to try to bridge the perceived divide. Apart from a sackload of strategy documents, practical measures are being taken in some places to increase access to computers and the Internet.

One approach is that of Arizona in the US. Here the TOPAZ project (Telecommunications Open Partnerships of Arizona) is aimed at providing broadband access rural communities. Over the next 5 years Arizona expects to spend $100 million supporting local public agencies in purchasing broadband telecoms services, via a statewide carrier service. 

Arizona state has contracted with 9 leading telecoms providers to develop the service.  In this way the network is being "pushed" out to the communities. The "pull" factor comes from the state encouraging, and financially supporting, local authorities, tribal governments, health and education providers and the not-for-profit sector to aggregate demand. In this way the business case is made for continued roll-out of the service.

A similar principle of building the business case by aggregating demand is being tested in Scotland. In many areas the biggest users of telecommunications come from the public sector. Government agencies are being given more leeway than they are in England to work with the telecoms operators in bringing broadband into areas that would take forever for the market to reach.

Wired Communities

In England, a series of pilot projects are being developed by the DFEE (Department for Education and Employment). Some 10 million has been awarded to 7 communities seen to be potentially on the wrong side of the digital divide. These are a mix of urban and rural areas:

  • Kensington, Liverpool, one of England's most disadvantaged inner city communities. Over 400 households are being wired up, with a total of 2,000 PCs to be installed 

  • The Carpenters Estate, Newham, East London: an inner city housing estate. All 750 households and the local primary school will be wired up;

  • Framlingham, Suffolk: a rural area, centred on a market town, involving the more deprived areas that exist alongside pockets of affluence. 1,500 homes and the local school will be wired up;

  • BeaconNet, East Manchester: an inner city housing estate where all 4,500 homes will be wired up along with local schools;

  • Whitebirk Estate, Blackburn: an area in a town with inner city features. Over 2,500 homes will be wired up and five local schools will benefit;

  • Alston, Cumbria: a rural area in which 1,200 homes across three small towns and isolated farms will be wired up. The project will involve two primary schools and a secondary school; 

  • Brampton upon Dearne, S Yorkshire: a former coalfield community. All 1,500 households in the community will be wired up and all 265 children at the local primary school will be provided with laptops.

Across these pilot areas, the government will test a range of technologies, including broadband and narrowband access, satellite communications and digital television. Community-based portals will be developed, an a  specially developed website will encourage people to use ICT to look for learning and employment opportunities and to support community activity.

Schoolchildren in the selected communities will be provided with laptops for use in schools and at home.

Other initiatives

Similar projects to the "Wired Up Communities" are also being developed in Nottingham and in Hull, where the local councils are able to take advantage of good levels of existing cable and telecoms infrastructure to set about connecting thousands of council-owned homes to the Internet and/or interactive TV.

Will all this technology make a difference?

Advocates of using new technologies to overcome social exclusion will always say that technology and connectivity are not in themselves the answer. But they do provide some routes in to opportunities - for both personal and community development.

The UK government certainly believes that deprived neighbourhoods will benefit from being wired up. A report from last year from the government's Policy Action Team 15 highlighted the anticipated benefits:

  • acquiring knowledge and developing skills 

  • developing confidence and self-esteem which reinforce family and community cohesion

  • pursuing leisure interests and opportunities 

  • publishing and broadcasting their opinions and ideas and relating that experience to that of others globally 

  • supporting and developing small businesses 

  • being empowered to campaign and participate in the democratic process. 

The Wired Communities, approach, however, does not prejudge the answers. Rather it wishes to "assess how individual access to the Internet can transform opportunities for people living in the most disadvantaged communities by developing new ways of accessing learning, work and leisure services."

The lessons learned will then inform priorities for wiring up communities in the future.

>> Creating work opportunities and lasting benefits
>> How real is the digital divide?

The "Digital Divide", like the term "Information Superhighway", is a kind of misleading short-hand to describe something complex and dynamic.

While some commentators deny the concept has any any real meaning, others see tackling it as the key to ensuring the fruits of prosperity are evenly spread in the New Economy.

In this article we look beyond the hype to the real issues, and how businesses and government agencies should respond.  The article is divided into 3 sections:

  1. Current approaches to tackling the digital divide (this page)

  2. Creating new forms of work and lasting benefits
    We come up with a checklist of activities to ensure that projects really deliver in the long-term 

  3. How real is the divide?
    There's a bit of a debate about the divide - some commentators deny it exists. Or if it does exist, does it matter? A few facts and figures here too.