Decoding Britain's digital divide

Society is split between those who embrace technology and those who don't have the skills – or the money – to live in a wired world. Tim Walker explains the drive for cyber-equality

Wednesday 03 February 2010 01:00

The numbers

10 million adults in the UK have never used the internet, and four million of them are among the least advantaged members of society. Following last year's Digital Britain report, founder Martha Lane Fox, below left, was appointed the Government's digital inclusion champion, charged with connecting those who found themselves left behind by the digital revolution not by choice but by circumstance – be it age, unemployment or poverty. RaceOnline2012, the national initiative she heads, is tasked with getting four million of those digitally disadvantaged people online by the time of the London Olympics in 2012. Supplementary goals include giving all unemployed adults an email account and internet access, and ensuring that 60 per cent of over-65s get online. The many groups under the RaceOnline umbrella range from Digital Unite, a computer training organisation, to the BBC, which runs outreach programmes as well as its "media literacy" website for the information technologically-challenged.

The players

Five per cent of Britons believe Steve Jobs, below, is a Second Division footballer, according to a survey recently conducted by the PR firm, Lewis. Of course, the survey was carried out prior to last week's launch of the iPad, after which many more of the globe's population must be aware that Jobs is, in fact, the CEO of Apple, Inc. However, the survey also found six per cent of people were convinced that Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet, was an Arctic explorer (and that a wireless dongle was a sex toy). While it it is certainly useful to own a computer with a broadband connection, however, there's nothing to suggest that a knowledge of the computer industry's history and personnel makes any difference to your ability to participate in society (though knowing of Steve Jobs probably aids participation in conversation at a lot of dinner parties). After all, you've no idea who the CEO of your electricity provider is, and you use his services considerably more frequently than those of Mr Jobs.

The social networks

More than 20 million Britons now have Facebook accounts, with its seven million twentysomethings being the site's most active demographic. Some of those users spend up to 125 hours per year on Facebook, the equivalent of an entire working week. A survey by Nielsen Online found that 31.3 million Britons – or 80 per cent of the UK's internet users – spent time on one of the top 75 social media sites during a single month in 2009, and that Facebook dominates the social networking charts, accounting for 75 per cent of their total usage. YouTube came second, followed by the Farmville online game. Manchester had more Facebook users than London. Though many remain staunch social network refuseniks, for others it is becoming a core means of staying in touch with friends, colleagues and loved ones. While the lack of a home computer might limit your social networking, age certainly needn't be a barrier. Bradford's Ivy Bean, above – who, at 104, is the oldest Twitter user in the world – has almost 55,000 followers.

The goods

The average UK shopper spent £1,102 online in 2009, and the UK overall spent £38bn – more than any other European nation, accounting for almost a third of all online sales in Europe. Online shopping also made up 10 per cent of all retail sales in the UK, according to research commissioned by the online shopping and price comparison site Kelkoo. But do those shoppers know exactly what they're getting? "People are confused by the technology involved in TV, broadband and phone. They're confused about the providers in the market. And they're confused by the deals on offer," says Charlie Ponsonby, CEO of To help navigate the thousands of possibilities, the site has created a "Personal Shopper" service on its site, "for people who don't want to be asked whether they need an 8Mb or 20Mb broadband service, but do know what they want to use the broadband for. It lets you explain in plain English what you want and matches your needs to the right technical specs." The idea is to reproduce the sort of conversation you'd have with the sales assistant in Dixons, over the net. "Online retailers need to take a leaf out of Google's book and understand better how consumers want to express themselves," says Ponsonby, "for everything from mortgages to flatscreen TVs to mobile phone handsets."

The money

Cheques cost £1 each to process, around four times as much as an electronic payment. For this reason, among others, the future of the 350-year-old system of money-moving looks set to be abolished. In December, the Payments Council Board voted to close the central cheque clearing system by the end of 2018: a reflection of the steep decline in paper banking. In the 12 years since internet banking began, 22 million UK adults have accessed their current accounts on the web. Now over 50 per cent of UK internet users regularly bank online, while cheque use has declined 40 per cent in five years. If there are elderly or disadvantaged people left out in the analogue cold by 2018, they'll find themselves partially cut off from their finances as well as their Facebook accounts.

The jargon

Less than 8 per cent of passers-by in Times Square, New York, knew what a browser was, according to a viral video. And that's in one of the world's most wired cities. A company trying to make technology simpler for those who are baffled by the lingo is SimplifyDigital, the Ofcom-accredited consumer advisory service for TV, broadband and phone. "These things are utilities and everybody's got to buy them and everybody finds them complicated," says Charlie Ponsonby. The providers of technology must meet customers half-way. The future of the web, Ponsonby adds, "is about getting inside the head of the consumer and understanding what they want from a search. Retailers online show products and expect the consumer to navigate between them according to technical attributes they may not understand".

The connections

A 50p per month tax will be applied, if the Government has its way, to every copper telephone landline in the UK to pay for next-generation broadband across the country. By 2012 the tax – which will raise between £150m and £175m a year – is expected to pay for upgrading the existing fibre networks, giving 90 per cent of the UK next generation broadband by 2017. Meanwhile, last year's Digital Britain report contained a commitment to deliver 2Mpbs of broadband (enough to support applications such as the iPlayer) to the entire country by 2012. This week, however, the Conservatives promised to deliver an even-more ambitious broadband roll-out if they win power (on a par, claimed shadow Chancellor George Osborne, with the construction of the railways and motorways), making the UK the first large EU nation with 100Mbps broadband. Their plans involve the possibility of diverting 3.5 per cent of the BBC licence fee, and breaking BT's monopoly of the networks. One of the first areas to benefit from super-fast broadband will be South Yorkshire, where four local authorities have raised £90m to provide a minimum of 25Mbps to homes beginning in 2010.

The hardware

270,000 laptops will be provided to low-income families by the Government, after Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised to invest £300m in the scheme. The plan is for families to use the computers for their children's education – not only allowing the children to do their homework with Wikipedia's help, but also giving their parents access to their child's school reports. "From 2010 all secondary schools – and from 2012 all primary schools – will guarantee reporting online to parents," Brown told the annual Learning and Technology World Forum in January. Then again, children with computers in the home are spending six hours per day in front of screens, according to a recent survey by research specialists ChildWise. Which is six hours they could be spending climbing trees or reading books. Private companies are also investing in inclusion. Newcastle company Broadband Computer Co recently launched Alex, a basic, super-user-friendly laptop aimed at making computing simple for new users.

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