Eye2Eye: E-envoy on a wired Britain

Andrew Pinder discusses the problem of achieving universal Net access and the UK's digital divide

I'd like to start with a question about how you see your relationship with ISPs. At the ISPA awards you didn't seem that pleased with them. What is it you would like them to do?

Here we have a new industry and [it makes] a big noise, to some extent justifiably, about the RIP Bill. Some strong representations were made to us, to the Home Office and to the press at large. We accepted the points that they made and the Home Office made some concessions in the way it was going to implement the Act. Two really big concessions.

One was to set up a consultation process which closes in just over a week's time and the other was the setting up of the technical advisory board which would be composed partly of people from the industry to make sure that the way these regulations were implemented would not impose too unnecessary a burden on the industry.

What has been disappointing is that the response to the consultation exercise has really been confined to the telecoms companies who are used to this sort of thing. And the response and nominations for the advisory board have also been quite poor. The point I was trying to make last night is it is all very well to moan and make a fuss about these things but you have to be grown up about it as well. When people have moved that industry has to mature and act in a mature way and part of that maturity means doing the work to get a decent compromise to all this.

So I was simply appealing to them to act as grown-ups and come in and help us make sure this thing is right because if they don't do that the next time they whinge about something government is doing people will not take as much notice of them, and it will be harder for them to get concessions.

RIP is obviously an important issue but at the moment the burning issue for ISPs is broadband. What is the government's target for the widespread availability of broadband?

We have no particular target. Everyone knowledgeable is saying that the demand for bandwidth will be very large. People at the moment are saying there is very little demand. There are long waiting lists is some areas and I have been on one of those waiting list myself for four months now. We need to get broadband accessible for businesses particularly. We have got to get BT opening exchanges, but we also have to get some other infrastructure built as well.

How are you going to achieve your target of universal Internet access by 2005?

We are going to make sure that first of all people have got the skills to use the Internet. Everyone can get Internet access now if they get a PC and plug it into a phone line but there are a number of barriers including price. It is about the prices of PCs themselves, although an awful lot of people have digital television with the possibility of Internet access through the TV. It is also about the price of a telephone line. For peak access it is actually very cheap these days but people have cause to complain about offpeak access prices and certainly have got cause to complain about the price of broadband.

But it is not just about the physical side of it, but also about the skills side of it. There are an awful lot of people who don't want or don't feel able to have Internet access. We can help educate people and provide some of those basic skills. UKonline is aimed at doing that. We want a confident population doing these things. People like my father who is in his eighties would feel this is a technology he is frightened of and needs some help to use it. Universal access is not just about the physical presence, but is also about the skills presence.

What specific measures can you take to counter a digital divide?

A digital divide is already there in the UK. An awful lot of people don't use the Internet either because they can't afford it or they haven't got the skills or whatever. That digital divide is there. There are a number of things the government can do. We are making PCs available very cheaply to those communities.

Giving people a PC is one thing but is somebody going to subsidise the cost of access?

Not at the moment. What we have to do is get the cost of access for everyone down and that is about opening up a competitive market. But for those people who don't want to shell out £15 a month but want to use the Internet we are doing quite a lot. We are opening UKonline centres, some of them where you will have to pay because they are commercial centres. Others, like libraries, will be free.

Do you think people will use public access centres?

There are two things here: what government can do to make [them] available and secondly what we can do to motivate people to use [them]. We are doing quite a lot to make the physical access available by opening up competition and trying to get the price of telephone lines down. And we will have 700 public access centres.

There is then the question of why would people want to use this. Government can make its own services more accessible than they currently are. The 2005 target for all government services online is not just about sticking existing brochures and forms online because they are equally intimidating viewed on a computer screen as in paper form. It is about trying to make the service more interactive and easier to use. UKonline is not a world-beating portal in the sense that it has snazzy graphics or moving images or trendy things. We tried to make it very plain and easy to use.

What has the traffic been like for it and has it overcome its teething problems?

We've had six million hits since December. It went down for about ten hours in the first week due to technical problems with the ISP we were using.

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