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Tackling the "digital divide"

The Flexibility way forward

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Projects to "wire up communities" or accelerate the roll-out of broadband services will, if successful, bring the Internet within the reach of people in many disadvantaged communities.

Coupled with the development of online educational content and access to useful information online (like job opportunities, childcare, health and benefits information) progress can be made in addressing the digital divide.

But there are likely to be some major obstacles to achieving lasting benefits:

  • can poorer people pay market-rate access charges, or will there be a continuing requirement for public subsidy?

  • will initiatives (e.g. learning centres, community portals etc) survive when public funding runs out at the end of projects?

  • will people who do develop their skills have to migrate out of the area to find work?

  • can the new infrastructure being developed be used to bring work in to disadvantaged areas?

The Flexibility way forward

We present here a list of priorities which we believe to be vital to achieving lasting benefits. To some extent the government role is pivotal, but there is much that other employers can do to bring work to poorer areas and to create markets for their products.

Locate existing work in disadvantaged communities. 

This should be a priority for public agencies. Often local authorities are the largest employer in low employment areas. By having local offices and touch-down centres for their staff they can achieve the business objective of locating staff closer to their clients. 

But more than that, they can bring spending power into disadvantaged communities and stimulate demand for local services. 

Where the new networks come in is that remote workers can be seamlessly connected with their organisation's headquarters. And this in turn provides a demand for telecoms to make services viable.

Other employers can take advantage of lower premises and other costs to locate work "down the wire" in less favoured areas.

Outsource work to disadvantaged areas

Public bodies and other employers can also stimulate local business growth and start-ups by outsourcing many services, e.g. call centres, data processing and professional services to companies that can work with them over the new networks.

But it is not easy to get this going, as the necessary skills may not exist initially in the community. So a first stage may be to work with outsourcing agencies and/or develop local development companies to broker outsourcing arrangements and promote collective marketing.

Support local businesses in developing their electronic capabilities

A "Field of Dreams" approach - "build it and they will come" - is unlikely to work. Just having access to the infrastructure will not equip small enterprises to compete nationally and globally.

Often medium, small and micro businesses in disadvantaged areas have barely entered the computer age. Support from skilled professionals is needed to help them develop technology, training and market access strategies to take advantage of broadband networks. And financial support for investment would also be most welcome! 

Encourage in-migration of new businesses and teleworkers

Studies have found that many of the most successful teleworkers in remote areas are people who have moved into the area, or people who left, became successful in their career and then return to their roots. 

Encouraging people t move in or return is probably easier to do in an attractive rural setting than a deprived inner city area. But as well as the inflow of wealth it's worth doing to provide examples of people teleworking successfully.

Use regulation to reduce the costs of access

This is one for the government. The cost of access is too high and threatens the sustainability of all "wired-up communities" projects.

The regulator needs to be tougher on ensuring that broadband services providers are not overcharged - as is happening at the moment - for access to local exchanges. The cost has to be passed on to the customer. 

Current rates pretty much ensure that for the time being broadband access is for those on the wealthier side of the digital divide.

Use aggregate demand to achieve good deals on telecoms

Public sector agencies are in a good position to strike better deals for broadband access, by poling the demand of public services and the voluntary sector.

And it is important to stimulate competition where possible, looking a the options of using other service providers - cable, wireless and satellite.

Use the windfall from telecoms licences to support broadband infrastructure development

This one is a bit of a pipe-dream, no doubt. but the UK government has made billions from the auction for telecoms licences. more of it should be fed back into developing broadband infrastructure.

At the end of the day, these windfalls mount up to an indirect tax on users. To recoup their outlay, telecoms providers, up to their necks in debt, feel they have to charge as much as they can. And the burden of this debt is slowing down the roll-out of broadband networks.

Continue support for community e-development

It may be a little trite to say it, but the wired communities projects are not magic wands that will turn deprived areas of the UK into little Silicon Valleys overnight. 

There will remain a continuing need for considerable public funds to be channeled into continuing community development activities. And the "wired up" side of things cannot be handed over to the market when a project finishes. 

The types of "e-community" activities valued by local people will need to be integrated into regular public service delivery.  

  1. Current approaches to tackling the digital divide 

  2. Creating new forms of work and lasting benefits (this page)

  3. The nature of the divide

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