A network of public computer kiosks, similar to the payphone system, should be set up to make sure the less well-off are not excluded from the information revolution, a consumer watchdog said yesterday.
The National Consumer Council wants "PC boxes" put into libraries, hospitals and community centres, so that people unable to afford a computer can surf the Internet.
It can cost a minimum of pounds 700 plus VAT for an IBM-compatible personal computer and around pounds 150 a year to link up to information services providing access to the Internet. Less than a quarter of UK households have a computer.
The telecommunications watchdog Oftel has already proposed extending universal service in telecommunications to cover multi-media facilities in schools for five to sixteen-year-olds. The NCC wants these proposals extended to all consumers in public access points, with special facilities for the housebound.
A version of this idea exists in the Cambridge area. The Cambridge On- Line project, sponsored by the local cable company and the Internet service provider Pipex, has six terminals across the city. Addenbrookes hospital also allows access to council services, local voluntary groups and the Internet as a whole.
Ruth Evans, NCC director, said: "We are living through a technological revolution with telecoms, broadcasting and computing converging fast. The information society could bring untold benefits - access to information, advice and educational services locally, nationally and internationally.
"However, regulation has not kept pace with the changes. We need a more effective regulatory structure to ensure open access, full choice, fair prices and adequate consumer protection."
Barclays and Lloyds banks will shortly introduce 50 kiosks where people will pay to surf the Internet and receive e-mail.
Eva Pascoe, training director and co-founder of the Cyberia cafes, said: "It's good idea in principle. A kiosk would be OK if all you wanted was stupid, mindless touch-screen shopping, but there is no easy way to get round the Internet at the moment without training."