Government failing to close digital divide

High tariffs for Internet access are excluding people in poorest areas

A damning report into the use of IT in Britain's most deprived areas, published Tuesday, has criticised the government for failing to address social division brought about by technology.

The report, "Closing the Digital Divide: Information and Communication Technology in Deprived Areas", comes from the government's Policy Action Team 15 and blames the cost of Net access and lack of a clear policy for putting people in the poorest parts of the UK at risk of digital exclusion.

The report adds its voice to the chorus of calls from industry, government and consumers for a significant reduction in Internet access costs. It strongly urges Oftel to find ways to introduce cheaper tariffs. "Many people think they cannot afford access. It is essential that any change in tariffs does not price people in deprived neighbourhoods out of using the full range of telephone services," the report states.

"The government must ensure that all of its actions to promote the use of ICT [information and communication technology] and e-commerce are coherent and reduce rather than increase social exclusion," the report concludes.

The report has a raft of other criticisms: that the government has no clear policy on how to bridge the digital divide; that awareness about ICT among deprived families is poor; that content provided in community centres is often "unattractive or unsuitable"; that there is a lack of suitable community access points; and that too little funding is given to such schemes.

It recommends that by April 2002, each deprived neighbourhood should have at least one publicly accessible Internet kiosk, that government should bring forward its electronic delivery of services timetable to 2004 and that ICT projects should receive greater funding.

In a statement, e-minister Patricia Hewitt acknowledged the need to close the digital divide. "We cannot risk leaving behind people living in our poorest communities," she said. "We must close the digital divide so everyone can reap the benefits of living in an e-nation. Government, business and voluntary and community organisations must work more closely together to help achieve this aim."

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