Digital divide still scars UK Internet sector

Those people who need the Web most are still struggling to have a connection at home, and government Web sites are also said to be failing them

Internet access begins at home only if you're well paid, according to new research that show that years of government and industry initiatives have yet to close Britain's digital divide.

Research published on Tuesday by the Greater London Authority (GLA) found that nearly 90 percent of families with children and annual household income of £52,000 or more have the Internet at home, but just  20 percent of married couples with an income of below £10,444.

As Web access is much less important than, say, food and heating, it could be argued that the more financially stretched can't be expected to pay to log on from home. But the GLA points out that the Internet and email can play a vital role in helping socially excluded people to find educational opportunities and to keep in touch. Worryingly, the Authority's research has also found that many online public services are of limited use for the people most in need of them.

"The government's drive to get all public services online by 2005 is laudable, but the evidence in this research is that local, regional and national government Web sites are among the least useful to socially excluded people who should be a core audience," warned Val Shawcross, London's e-envoy, in a statement accompanying the report.

The GLA survey assessed Londoners in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, disability, income, and employment status to define those who were socially disadvantaged. Those falling into this category are over 50 percent more likely than the wider population to use the Web for training and educational information, and also more likely to use email.

"This research shows that being online can bring real value to socially excluded Londoners, helping them to communicate or learn a new skill," said London Mayor Ken Livingstone.

The government is committed to making Internet access available to everyone who wants it by 2005 through a range of methods, including UK Online centres for people who haven't got a Web connection at home or work.

Livingstone believes that universal domestic access is more important than just expecting people to visit their nearest UK online centre.

"The longer-term challenge is to find ways to bring Internet services into the homes of those Londoners who cannot afford it," said Livingstone.