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MY INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
ARTICLES IN 2009

Since 2003, I have written regular articles on information technology for Connect, which used to be a separate trade union and in January 2010 became a section of the larger union Prospect. Originally the magazine was called "The Review" and then in April 2004 it was renamed "Connected". The text of all these articles, with relevant hyperlinks, are filed on my web site and this page brings together all those from 2009. If you would like to comment on any of them e-mail me.

Jan/Feb 2009 The Challenge Of Digital Inclusion
March 2009 Do We Need A New Internet?
April/May 2009 How Will NGA Be Delivered?
June 2009 Does The Internet Improve Lives?
July/Aug 2009 How The Smartphone Changed The World
September 2009 How Do We Solve The Copyright Conundrum?
Oct/Nov 2009 What Should Ofcom Do?
December 2009 At Last: Action On Digital Inclusion


In his 50th column for Connect, our Internet specialist Roger Darlington addresses what is probably the most central issue posed by the Net.

THE CHALLENGE OF DIGITAL INCLUSION

In spite of great progress in Britain in getting people online, the stark reality is that two in four citizens do not have broadband, and this figure is only edging upwards, while one in three citizens has no home Internet connection at all, and that figure is effectively static.

This problem of digital inclusion can be seen as consisting of two linked but different challenges: access and take-up.

Let's start with access. There are three main issues here.

First, can a citizen obtain a reliable connection to the Internet? BT claim that 99.6% of homes and businesses are connected to ADSL-enabled exchanges but some - like the Communications Management Association (CMA) - have challenged this. There are still a number of so-called 'not spots' and it would be helpful for Government to both quantify and locate the homes in such 'not spots'.

Second, once a citizen can gain access to current generation broadband, how practical is it to obtain faster speeds as and when these are required? Currently we appear to have three broad categories of access: those limited to somewhere between 0.5-2 Mbit/s, those who theoretically can access up to 8Mbit/s, and those who theoretically can access up to 24 Mbit/s (ADSL2+). All new technologies take time to roll out to all parts of the country, but there should be concern that a range of digital divides are now growing up.

Third, there is growing debate about the provision of next generation broadband - technically known as next generation Access (NGA) - which is likely to be based principally on optical fibre and will provide access to speeds of up to 100Mbit/s and beyond. Understandably the Government's Digital Inclusion Action Plan is primarily about current generation broadband, but it is not too early to start thinking now about the danger of new, bigger digital divides opening soon if a purely commercial  approach is adopted to the roll-out of NGA.

Now let's consider take-up. Again there are three important issues.

First, there are practical barriers. These include the cost of Internet access and of a PC or other device for connecting to the Net. Cost is becoming less of a barrier to take-up, but it is still a factor in lower income households and for some older persons.

Second, there are attitudinal barriers. These include a failure to see the relevance of the Net to one's personal life circumstances and fear of both how to use a PC and of malware on the Net. These barriers are of major importance to the sectors of the population which have still not connected to the Net.

Third, there are usability issues. Even when cost and attitude are not problems, a significant number of our citizens have usability problems in relation to the Net because of a variety of physical or mental impairments. These problems have not had the attention they deserve.

The Government's consultation document on its Digital Inclusion Action Plan makes four proposals:

These proposals are welcome, but we could be more radical. We could have a Government- sponsored 'one stop shop' for advice on IT issues modelled on Consumer Direct and NHS Direct. We should review the case for using the Digital Switchover Help Scheme as a means of accessing and supporting those not on the Net.

Another idea might be a major take-up campaign run - across all its outlets - by the BBC, perhaps using money from the 'switchover levy' on the licence which looks unlikely to be used fully in the Help Scheme. A related campaign – to be run across all Government Departments and in conjunction with local authorities – should highlight how many public public services are now online and the benefits of accessing those services via the Net.

In fact, the tailing off of Net take-up is a problem common to all the advanced industrial economies and we should look at what other such countries are doing and see if any schemes or initiatives are transferable to the UK.

Link: "Delivering Digital Inclusion: An Action Plan For Consultation" click here


The Internet was never conceived or designed for its current uses, so our columnist Roger Darlington considers a fundamental question.

DO WE NEED A NEW INTERNET?

The Internet started as a private network that was publicly owned, but now it is a public network that is privately owned. These changes have thrown up profound problems that have led some to suggest that we need to start again with a new Net.

To access the grounds for the argument, let's go back to the beginning.

The Internet was originally called the ARPAnet because it began with the US Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1969. This government-funded network was designed to enable military communications to survive a nuclear attack by using distributed nodes and packet switching.

The Internet gradually migrated from the military to the academic community, but it was still the preserve of a small number of trusted users who would never have wanted to hurt other users or damage the network. [For a history of the Internet click here]

Today all that has changed.

No single organisation owns or controls the Net. The physical infrastructure is provided by hundreds of organisations, most of them private companies. And, instead of a few hundred (originally American) academics, we now have some 1.5 billion users all around the world and that number is growing daily.

The Internet has utterly transformed individual lives, created huge new businesses, and stimulated national economies. It is overwhelming a power for good – and yet ...

Some users are selfish and around 90% of all traffic on the Net is now spam which increases operating costs and slows down speeds for us all. Some users are plain evil and create and distribute child abuse images online which is why we have organisations like the Internet Watch Foundation [click here] which I chaired for six years.

Some users are malevolent and infect the Net with what is collectively called malware, one of the most dangerous being botnets when individuals' computers are taken over for nefarious purposes unknown to the owner of the PC. The latest fear is over something called the Conficker.B worm which is said to have infected some 12 million computers.

The crux of the problem is that the current Internet gives anonymity to users and changing that could be perceived as a threat to privacy. So what is to be done?

A recent feature in the “New York Times” [click here] asserted that ".. there is a growing belief among engineers and security experts that Internet security and privacy have become so maddeningly elusive that the only way to fix the problem is to start over. What a new Internet might look like is still widely debated, but one alternative would, in effect, create a “gated community” where users would give up their anonymity and certain freedoms in return for safety."

The piece referred to the Clean Slate project being carried out at Stanford University in the United States [click here]. Here researchers have set up a closed user network codenamed Ethane which will eventually form the basis of new corporate networks. But what about the rest of us?

In his weekly column written for the “Observer” newspaper [click here], John Naughton took a pessimistic, if pragmatic, view on the problem: “.. we're stuck with the trade-off between the creativity, innovation - and, yes, insecurity - that comes with openness; and the security - and stagnation - that comes with a tightly-controlled network”.

So, do we need a new Net? Of course, we do. But we aren't going to get one – just some technical improvements, such as the long-awaited introduction of the new protocol known as Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) [click here] that would fix many of the shortcomings of the current IPv4.

That leaves it down to us, the end users, to take the precautions necessary to protect ourselves from spam, scams, viruses and various malware.

An excellent source of advice is the Government-supported web site Get Safe Online [click here]. What would be even better would be a hot line advice centre on all IT problems along the lines of NHS Direct or Consumer Direct. Who would fund it? I would suggest Nominet [click here] which is the Internet registry for .uk domain names and has surplus funds. It would be a great way for the industry to help its users and ultimately its businesses. An idea for Lord Carter and the final report of the Digital Britain project?


Super-fast broadband – or next generation access as it is properly known – will not be delivered by a single technology. Our communications specialist Roger Darlington looks at the main options.

HOW WILL NGA BE DELIVERED?

There are many options using optical fibre which are collectively known as FTTx where FTT stands for 'fibre to the ..' But, in the context of residential customers, two options are especially likely:

The first option is fibre to the cabinet (FTTC).

In this model, fibre runs from the local exchange to the street cabinet and the active electronics are installed in the cabinet. The link from the cabinet to the customer's home remains the existing copper loop. Typically FTTC would offer a download speed of 50 Mbit/s with a much slower upload speed. The vast majority of BT's roll-out of NGA will use FTTC.

The second option is fibre to the home (FTTH).

In this model, fibre runs all the way from the local exchange to the customer's home. There are two main types of FTTH model:

a) In a passive optical network (PON), a single fibre from the exchange serves multiple customers by having its capacity divided or split. Typically this would provide each customer with a download speed of around 80 Mbit/s and technically the upload speed could be similar. This is the approach being used by BT at the Ebbsfleet development and other new build environments.

b) In a point to point (P2P) fibre network, each customer has a dedicated fibre connection to their premises. This allows virtually limitless and completely symmetric access speeds to be offered. This is the topology being used in countries like Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan and by Verizon in the United States.

These different options involved different costs and operational factors to the providers and different access speeds to the customers. FTTH is regarded as more secure than FTTC as it does not require active street cabinets, while the long-term operating costs would be lower than for other technology solutions. However, the up-front costs of deploying fibre all the way to the home would be significantly higher than for FTTC.

For the UK, according to the consultancy Analysys Mason, fibre to the cabinet using very high bit-rate digital subscriber line would cost an estimated £5.1 billion, while fibre to the home using a Gigabit passive optical network would cost an estimated £24.5 billion.

For a cable operator, the technology will be a little different than for a telco. So Virgin Media – which owns the cable networks passing around half of UK homes - was first off the block to provide NGA in advance of BT and this service uses a technology called DOCSIS 3.0 (DOCSIS stands for Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification which is an international standard).

Effectively this is a kind of FTTC since it ultilises fibre to a cabinet and coaxial cable to the home. Virgin is offering a 50 Mbit/s service (plus an upstream speed of around 1.5 Mbit/s).

Besides these wireline technologies, a number of wireless technologies might play a role in delivering next generation access in specific (typically rural) locations, if sufficient appropriate spectrum can be made available to support such services. Such technologies may well include WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) and WiBro (Wireless Broadband).

Another promising wireless technology is called Long Term Evolution (LTE) which is a mobile technology otherwise known as 4G. Although formally the relevant technical standard does not exist yet, LTE will offer massively more bandwidth than 3G – peak download rates of 326.4 Mbit/s – but it suffers from the physical problems of 3G in that it requires masts and of course hills and valleys are still significant obstacles.

DoCoMo in Japan and Verizon in the USA are leading the charge in the proposed use of LTE.

Finally, satellite will be a fill-in solution for locations that terrestrial options cannot serve, but this will be a rare solution in view of the costs involved and the relatively long delay in signal transmission. Although not as satisfactory a solution as copper or radio, satellite is almost universally accessible except for a few homes on the wrong side of hills. Also there are no "up to" problems in advertising of speeds, since all users receive the same service.

It seems likely that satellite can play a larger role in the provision of both current and next generation broadband than is the case at present, since the launch of the new HYLAS satellite this year and the launch of the HERCULES satellite some time later should make available download speeds up to 8Mbit/s and 50 Mbit/s respectively.


Those of us who use the Net tend to take it for granted that everyone would want it, but our correspondent Roger Darlington explains that we need evidence to make the business case for digital inclusion programmes.

DOES THE INTERNET IMPROVE LIVES?

This is the title of a recent research report carried out by the company Fresh Minds for UK Online Centres. The aim was to strengthen the business case for the sort of excellent work carried out by the more than 6,000 centres across the nation.

We know that a third of the UK population – some 17 million people over the age of 15 – are digitally excluded as a result of not have having an Internet connection at home and that some 70% of this group are in social groups C2, D and E. Some 36% are both C2DE and over 65.

So the Fresh Minds research involved a quantitative telephone survey of 810 respondents based on random samples of Internet users and non-users from C2DE groups in England. The aim was to see whether one could identify real benefits to being online.

The researchers acknowledge that the survey results cannot prove a direct causal connection between Internet use and improvements in life experiences, but argue that the differences across most of the survey areas show significant correlation and are highly suggestion of causality. This interpretation of the data is reinforced by insights from focus groups and UK Online Centres' users.

So, what did the research find? It looked at five core areas.

The first was social capital: the extent of people's social lives and their sense of connection, community and civic involvement. The study found that, in response to the statement 'I find it easy to organise social gatherings, such as meetings and parties with friends and family', Internet users were 12% more likely to agree strongly with the statement than non-users.

The second area examined was confidence and quality of life. Internet users were found to rate their self-confidence much higher than non-users.

Third, the study considered employment where there were some significant results. Over three-quarters of Internet users felt confident of their skills to find a new job compared to only half of the non-user group. That means that users' confidence exceeds that of non-users by 25%.

Next, health. Although speaking to a GP or medical professional was still by far the most common response to a question of what would be the first source used by people wanting to find out what was wrong with them when they fall ill, 19% of Internet users would turn to the Net in the first instance.

Fifth and finally, the survey looked at the amount of money that Internet users felt that they saved because of their use of the Net as opposed to other methods. Some 48% of Internet users thought that they saved more than £20 a month. A saving of at least £240 a year is significant to consumers in these social groups.

So does the Internet improve lives?

The report concludes: “This study has been able to show an overarching correlation between Internet use and positive experiences across most of our areas of enquiry”.

It points out that, in the midst of a recession, more confidence at finding a new job and savings by making use of online services represent real benefits, especially for the social groups least likely to be online. At a time when government is trying to make savings on public services, the evidence that Internet users will use online sources – such as information on health – is appealing.

As Helen Milner – the first class Managing Director of UK Online Centres - puts it in her foreword to the report: “We can build the pipes, we can create the sites, and we can deliver the skills but, unless the 17 million people currently off-line are motivated to take that first step on a digital journey, we will achieve very little.”

Basically those not online fall into two categories: what the report calls the excluded (those who lack access or skills) and the rejectors (those who lack motivation). Or, put another way, the disadvantaged as opposed to the disinterested. These two groups require rather different approaches and programmes.

We now await the Government's impending announcement of a Digital Inclusion Champion and Digital Inclusion Task Force who will be charged with taking forward this vitally important agenda and promoting relevant new programmes.

Links:
UK Online Centres click here
Fresh Minds report "Does the Internet Improve Lives?" click here
"Delivering Digital Inclusion: An Action Plan For Consultation" click here


Our columnist Roger Darlington explains his love affair with the iPhone.

HOW THE SMARTPHONE CHANGED THE WORLD

Over the last two decades, the mobile phone has become ubiquitous. Here in the UK, there are more mobile contracts than there are men, women and children and 86% of adults own a mobile.

In the last few years, however, we have seen a huge impact of the smartphone, as it moved from the business market into the consumer market, and as it developed dramatically increased flexibility and functionality. We can now see the smartphone as a paradigm shift in the consumer experience.

What exactly is a smartphone? There is no formal definition and no industry standard, but the term is usually taken to refer to a mobile phone offering advanced capabilities, often with PC-like functionality.

The first smartphone had the unlikely name Simon; it was designed by IBM in 1992 and shown as a concept product that year at the computer industry trade show COMDEX. Until recently, the most famous smartphone was the Blackberry; this was released by RIM in 2001 and was the first smartphone optimised for wireless e-mail use, rapidly achieving a customer base of millions, mostly business users in North America.

Now we have a growing range of smartphones with the latest products including Apple's iPhone 3GS, Nokia's N97, and the Palm Pre.

So, what's it like to own a smartphone and why is it so life-changing? Well, let me tell you about my love affair with the iPhone. The product was launched in Britain at 6.02pm on Friday 9 November 2007 and I bought mine on the following Tuesday.

For me, the single most advantageous experience was that at last, instead of taking everywhere with me my mobile and my PDA (personal digital assistant), I only had to take my iPhone and, although an 8GB device (nothing compared to the 32B of the most expensive 3GS version), it was light enough to put into my inside suit pocket.

So all my contact details are with me everywhere I go. Today I have over 1,000 and, in each case, I can store mobile and fixed numbers, home and business addresses, company and job title, and any personal details I want to record.

I never used the calendar on earlier mobile phones – the screen was just too small. But the iPhone's screen is 50mm by 75mm so I can easily view a day or month in detail. Naturally there are also all the normal features of a modern mobile: clock, alarm, calculator, notes, and camera (although at 2 megapixels, the original iPhone was a disappointment).

Like any smartphone, the iPhone permits the receiving and sending of e-mail and the surfing of the web. What is special is the virtual keyboard (I was always losing my stylus with my Palm Pilot PDA) and a touchscreen that enables one to expand and contract the size of text simply by 'pinching' with one's fingers.

The maps feature is brilliant. One just types in a post code and the address is pinpointed on a street map and, if you want, a click will take you to a Google Earth shot.

In July 2008, Apple introduced its innovative Appications Store with both paid and free applications. The App Store was a new way to deliver smartphone applications developed by third parties directly to the iPhone (or iPod Touch) without using a PC via download over wi-fi or a cellular network.

The App Store has been a huge success for Apple and delivered its billionth application to users in April 2009. Today the store hosts around 50,000 applications. Let me give you just a feel for the functionality that this gives an iPhone user and all the apps I'll quote are free and downloadable in seconds.

Dictionary.com gives me a searchable dictionary in my hand; Wikipanion provides me with a mobile-friendly version of Wikipedia; Cambio converts from imperial to metric units for all measurements; ITN News gives me the very latest news stories; tvguide tells me what's on all the major channels now and for the rest of the day.

A great app is called Aroundme. It works out where you are and tells you all the nearest banks, bars, cafes, restaurants, hotels, cinemas and so on. For a movie fan like me, there is Flixster which tells me what's on at all the cinemas near where I am and even gives me screening times plus telephone numbers and maps. A very practical app called WC Finder advises you of the location of the nearest public toilet.

As if topping up one's current mobile with all sorts of apps was not cool enough, Apple has come along with a new 3.0 operating system and one simply downloads the new software via a PC. This makes over 100 changes improving speed, function and performance. Now one can turn the virtual keyboard round to landscape, search contacts, calender and e-mails, and cut, copy and paste text.

When one has a mobile that starts with so much functionality including e-mail and web access, that just keeps getting better and better at no extra cost, and has more and more of the functionality of a PC, then the world has changed.

Links:
Wikipedia page on smartphones click here
how to get the iPhone click here
Stephen Fry's review of the iPhone 3GS click here


Balancing the interests of rights holders and consumers in the new digital world is a policy maker's nightmare. Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington explains what is at stake.

HOW DO WE SOLVE THE COPYRIGHT CONUNDRUM?

In a world in which most copyrighted material takes digital form and most consumers have access to a broadband connection, it is all too easy technically and usually cost-free for users to copy, distribute and adapt copyrighted works. Mainly we are talking here of music files and feature films, but such file sharing – usually through peer-to-peer networks using technology such as BitTorrent – can involve anything from television programmes to books, business software to computer games.

Let us be clear: such file sharing is clearly illegal and morally wrong. Unfortunately it is so easy and young people especially have become so used to it that we face a situation where in the UK up to nine million Internet users could technically be criminals.

The first problem in tackling illegal file sharing is that we do not know how extensive it is, what the revenue loss is, and what would be a reasonable objective for a reduction in such activity. All this did not stop the Government in its Digital Britain Final Report suggesting a target for a reduction of 70%

However, the answer cannot be to criminalise all such everyday activity and to regard a 13 year old music lover as the same as a gang selling counterfeit Hollywood movies on the High Street. We need a sophisticated and multi-dimensional approach which would include:

It is the final action that will prove overwhelmingly the most controversial and problematic. Some of the issues involved are: Again it is the final action that will prove the most controversial.

The Digital Britain Final Report proposed that Ofcom be given the power to require ISPs to take six technical measures: blocking by site, IP or URL, protocol blocking, port blocking, bandwidth capping, bandwidth shaping, and content identification & filtering.

However, in the middle of a consultation process on these proposals, the Government issued a new statement adding suspension of accounts to the list of measures that could be taken. Obviously this is a serious power since the same Digital Britain document argued that broadband access is now so essential to citizenship that there should be a new universal commitment to 2 megabits a second.

The Government statement also made clear that the decision whether or not to require ISPs to introduce these technical measures would not be taken by Ofcom (as originally intended) but by the Secretary of State (currently Lord Mandelson) although Ofcom would still provide the technical information to inform that decision.

In between the rights holders on the one hand and Net users on the other, the Internet service providers – such as BT and Virgin - find themselves sitting uncomfortably in the middle. They do not want to be directly involved in enforcing any new rights regime.

Partly, this is a matter of principle: the European Directive on E-Commerce states that ISPs are “mere conduits” and ISPs do not want to become involved in policing the content that they are carrying. They have been willing to work with the Internet Watch Foundation in combating child abuse images on-line, but the simple viewing of such material is a criminal offence and breach of copyright is a much greyer area.

Partly, it is practical matter of costs. ISPs operate in a highly competitive market with low margins, but the Government is proposing that costs directly incurred by ISPs be borne by them and that the operating costs of sending notifications be split 50:50 between them and rights holders.

Link: Government consultation on illegal filesharing click


As we approach the General Election, the regulation of communications is proving to be a surprisingly political issue. Our columnist Roger Darlington explains why.

WHAT SHOULD OFCOM DO?

At one level, the answer is easy: Ofcom should do what Parliament has mandated it to do in legislation that was the subject of extensive consideration.

The Parliamentary passage of the legislation that is now the Communications Act 2003 involved 26 sessions of the Commons Standing Committee and in total 17 days of Parliamentary business representing some 300 hours of debate.

The Communications Act – which created Ofcom and defines its duties - is a formidable piece of legislation: 411 Sections and 19 Schedules running to 590 pages.

Ofcom has an enormously wide range of duties. Indeed Ofcom itself has calculated that in all the regulator has 263 statutory duties, compared to 128 imposed on the five earlier regulators.

Put briefly, what Ofcom does is to regulate telecommunications, broadcasting and spectrum in the UK. Our telecommunications and broadcasting industries are at the heart of an enabled, educated and informed citizenry and together the industries generate some £52 billion of revenues.

So, why the controversy?

On the one hand, we have the current Government proposing in the Digital Britain Final Report - to be enacted in the Digital Economy Bill - that Ofcom be given two new duties.

The first new duty would be to promote efficient investment in communications infrastructure, alongside the promotion of competition, when furthering the interests of consumers. The second new duty would be to report to the Secretaries of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and for Culture, Media and Sport every two years giving an assessment of the UK’s communications infrastructure.

The same legislation will give Ofcom special responsibilities in relation to combatting illegal filesharing. Furthermore there are some calls for the regulation of the BBC to move from the BBC Trust to Ofcom.

On the other hand, we have the Leader of the Opposition, in a major speech on the need to reduce the number and role of so-called quangos, insisting: “With a Conservative Government, Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist. Its remit will be restricted to its narrow technical and enforcement roles. It will no longer play a role in making policy. And the policy-making functions it has today will be transferred back fully to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport."

What's going on here?

Part of the explanation is that there is a difference between how Ofcom is perceived to be carrying out its duties in relation to telecommunications and broadcasting.

Ofcom is widely judged to have done well in achieving the settlement with BT that created Openreach and resulted in the rapid expansion of local loop unbundling which has led to a more competitive market and more choice for consumers. It has worked hard on next generation access and there are no major regulatory obstacles to the roll-out of super-fast broadband.

On the other hand, Ofcom's role in the broadcasting sector has proved more controversial. Some people do not like its contributions to the debate on how public service broadcasting should be sustained in an era of multi-channel television and a haemorrhaging of advertising revenues to the Internet. But, in fact, it has not made policy so much as put recommendations to Ministers.

Sky TV does not like Ofcom's interventions in the pay TV market which it dominates, but the regulator had to respond to complaints from Sky's competitors and any regulatory remedies have to meet the principles set out in the Communications Act.

A further part of the explanation may be a lack of clarity over the respective roles of Ofcom and Government Departments and over the dividing lines between regulation and policymaking. This is a difficult area not just for Ofcom but for all regulators, but the industries that Ofcom regulates are of special size and visibility.

My suggestion is that, at the beginning of each new Parliament (and more often if circumstances require), each Government Department should draw up a public policy document for each regulated area within its remit.

This document should spell out the Government's vision and objectives for the sector, what it intends to do to give effect to that vision, what it expects the regulator to do, and how it intends to ensure coordination of the two streams of work. The implementation and operation of the contents of this document should be monitored by the relevant Select Committee.

Links:
David Cameron speech on quangos click here
BIS consultation on new duties for Ofcom click here


Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington welcomes initiatives to bring more people online.

AT LAST : ACTION ON DIGITAL INCLUSION

As long ago as the summer of 2004, I wrote in my column [click here] for Connect about my concern over the slowing down of Internet take-up and floated the idea of one-to-one tutoring through the use of local volunteers. I returned to the subject in the autumn of 2005 in another column [click here] when I emphasized that the digital divide was deepening and again looked at the role of volunteers.

In the autumn of 2007, I wrote for a third time [click here] on the problem when I lamented: "There is a major challenge to Government here. Something like a third of households are unlikely to go on-line anytime soon unless there are some significant support programmes." Then, at the beginning of 2009, I made a fourth effort [click here] to highlight the issue in a column suggesting: "Another idea might be a major take-up campaign.”

So recently, I've felt like the man that waits ages for a bus and then three turn up, as there has just been a whole series of welcome announcements about initiatives to tackle the digital divide and to promote digital inclusion and digital participation.

Co-founder of Lastminute.com Martha Lane Fox has been appointed by the Government as the Champion for Digital Inclusion and she is supported by a Digital Inclusion Task Force whose members include Anna Bradley, the Chair of the Communications Consumer Panel (on which I sit).

The Champion and her Task Force have announced the launch of Race Online 2012 [click here]. This is described as "a rallying call to the country to get four million of the most disadvantaged people online over the next three years" – that is, by the time of the Olympic Games in London.

The aim is to be a creative and intelligent ‘hub’ for existing and future work across the public, private, and third sectors. The campaign will highlight and encourage replication of great ideas, amplify the voices of those who might struggle to be heard, and link up people, funders and projects that might not otherwise meet. The use of volunteers will be important.

To provide some economic rationale for this campaign, Martha Lane Fox has published a report prepared for her by consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers which seeks to make the economic case for digital inclusion. The headline figure is £22 billion for the estimated benefits of getting everyone online in the UK - a combination of education, employment & government efficiencies, and consumer savings.

Meanwhile, following a recommendation in the Digital Britain Final Report, a new Digital Participation Consortium [click here] has been launched under the leadership of the regulator Ofcom. The chair of the consortium is senior Ofcom staffer Stewart Purvis.

The Consortium already has more than 50 members. It aims to increase the reach, breadth and depth of digital technology use and to maximise digital participation and promote its economic and social benefits. The Consortium will encourage people to take up digital communication technologies by providing information, motivation and support. A major social marketing campaign is likely.

Whereas the Champion for Digital Inclusion will focus on those who are not just digitally excluded but also socially excluded - like older people and poorer households - the Digital Participation Consortium will look at all households - still about one-quarter - who are not online and at how those who are online can make better use of the Net.

In the welter of recent activity around digital inclusion, Ofcom has published its latest media literacy audit in two parts which provide useful data for the regulator and campaigners.

First, there was “UK Adults' Media Literacy” [click here].

This highlighted that three in four adults use the Net at home or elsewhere in 2009 (75%), compared to two-thirds (63%) in 2007 and three-fifths (59%) in 2005, but of course this means that a quarter of British households is still not online.

Second, there was “UK Children's Media Literacy” [click here].

This revealed that, when looking specifically at use of the Net within the home, children in D & E socio-economic groups are the only groups not to have experienced an increase in use since 2008, despite the increase in access.

So, at long last, we seem to be taking the problem of digital inclusion seriously and developing some targeted campaigns. But, of course, this is just the start of the digital ladder. Once people start to use the Net, they want faster speeds and more reliability and that means next generation broadband for all.


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