Government digital divide strategy in disarray

The strategy to get disadvantaged parts of the country online is suffering from a serious lack of planning
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

The strategy to get disadvantaged parts of the country online is suffering from a serious lack of planning

The government's plan to combat the digital divide by giving away 100,000 recycled PCs to the poorest families in Britain has gone awry as it admitted today that it has so far distributed just 6,000 since October.

The PC giveaway was part of a £10m initiative to wire up communities, announced by chancellor Gordon Brown in October last year. At the current rate of distribution some homes earmarked for a free PC would have to wait until February 2009 to receive their computers. Speaking to ZDNet UK, a government spokesman blamed "problems with contractors" for the slow hand-out.

And the PC distribution programme is not the only digital divide-busting scheme that is facing problems. The government is also running a scheme to give away digital interactive TVs. Villagers in Brampton Bierlow in Rotherham are one group that have been selected to receive free set-top boxes as part of an access via digital interactive TV scheme, but say they do not like what they have seen so far.

The people of Brampton Bierlow say they are unhappy with the way the way the scheme has been planned and question how free it is. "The free system is not as free as people thought," said villager Michael Fitzgibbons. With ONdigtal only providing one free channel and not offering to subsidise the phone bill, he said, the service smacks more of a way for the company to increase its customer base.

Think-tank Demos believes the government will have its work cut out to bridge the digital divide with hardware alone. "They will find it difficult to pursue a hardware strategy. How do you find the right 100,000 people for example? Where do you get the kit and how do you transport it?" asked a spokesman. He also questions the motivation of PC manufacturers and software companies getting involved in such schemes.

More worrying still, Demos suggests, is the fact that the government is pursuing the wrong policy; if it really wants to tackle the digital divide it should look at what businesses are doing with data. "We think that over time the cost of computers and access will come down and so access to hardware is not the real problem," said the spokesman. "The biggest problem is companies using digital data to exclude particular individuals."

Back in April a Trade and Industry select committee condemned government attempts to bridge the digital divide as "futile gestures". "The initiative centres and development programmes do not amount to a strategy to overcome the digital divide between old and young, rich and poor, urban and rural," the committee concluded in its report. "In the context of the scale of the digital divide, they look like woefully inadequate gestures. Millions of people are excluded, not the thousands reached so far by these initiatives."

Colin Jenkins, director of special projects at Energis, is currently on secondment to the GLC to look at ebusiness across the capital. He believes the government has put the cart before the horse with its digital divide policies and needs first to assess and identify the problem. "Those that are identified as being part of the digital divide has mobile telephones, access to TV and gaming machines and have got the nous to use these technologies," he said. "The digital divide is not like the literacy divide and we have to figure out what we are trying to achieve here."

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the ZDNet News forum.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom. And read other letters.

Editorial standards