North-south divide comes to cyberspace

Few northerners have the Internet to relieve those long winter nights, a new study says.

Research this week suggests the north is still in the dark ages when it comes to home computer use, and analysts are worried about a knock-on effect to education.

The survey, "North-South Divide in PC and Internet Adoption," by market research firm Datamonitor, indicates that while nearly 50 percent of people in the southeast of England have access to a PC at home, the figure for the northern regions is far lower. For example in Lancashire, Northern Ireland and the Midlands, that figure drops to 35 percent.

The capital's population are positively gagging for Net access with 25 percent of Londoners surfing the Web from home. This in stark contrast to many parts of England, where home access is almost non-existent. Figures for Yorkshire and Lancashire for example, showed home Net access to be as low as 6 percent.

Puni Rajah, director of European services industry research for analyst firm IDC, recently bemoaned slow computer uptake in Europe by comparison with the US. She blames economic factors for the differences in PC/Net use across the country. "The cost of acquiring a computer is the first hurdle to get over," she says. "That's the problem with computer use across Europe and I can see why less wealthy areas of the UK have fewer computers."

Rajah is exasperated by what she views as lethargic leadership by the Blair government to encourage computer uptake and is concerned the gaps across the country will have a negative effect on education. "The government... could be doing much more. In Sweden, the government encourages people to buy computers with tax concessions."

The Department of Education and Employment (DFEE) maintains the divide does not effect levels of educational computer use throughout the UK. A spokesman for the DFEE's computer and Internet awareness department, the National Grid for Learning, dismisses the report's findings as irrelevant to education. "We don't want to comment on these findings because the research is not about educational computer use," he says. "Arguably there is some link between home computer use and education, but I don't think it is strong."

The spokesman also refutes the idea that a lack of home computer access could have a negative effect on standards of homework and confirms there are no plans to offer extra computers or Internet facilities for children in areas where home access is low. The spokesman explains, "We have identified that there is a potential gap between the 'haves' and 'have-nots', but we are concentrating on getting computers in schools first and foremost."

One Datamonitor analyst Stephen Adshead, questions the DFEE's position. "Lack of computer access at home could certainly mean that some children lose out. Online education is something that a lot of companies are looking into at the moment, and when that takes off those children could lose out even more." Rajah agrees, expressing her astonishment by what she views a blasé response. She says, "It's all about education... You've got to get computers everywhere, not just in schools, in order to get kids playing with them."