UK Grapples with its Own ‘Digital Divide’

According to consulting firm Booz Allen & Hamilton, the United Kingdom is verging on the same type of “digital divide” that the U.S. government discovered in America’s urban and rural communities last summer.

This gap in access to the Internet and technology between the “haves” and “have nots” will only get worse, the consulting firm warns, unless the government takes steps to intervene. The impact on the “have nots” would be severe, as the ability to conduct everything from the most basic daily transactions to more complicated business deals continues to shift into the online world.

The data shows that about four million new users, or eight percent of the population, are getting online each year. “Far from evening out the emerging inequalities, the wave of growth is likely to exacerbate them in relative terms, leaving an unconnected or excluded group of over 20 million citizens,” the company said.

Clear Demographics

As is the case in the United States, the United Kingdom’s Internet user population follows clear demographic and socio-economic lines. The consulting firm notes that nearly half of the country’s Internet users are 15 to 24 years old, despite the fact that the group accounts for a mere 15 percent of the population.

On the other hand, only one in 25 people over age 64 use the Internet, the firm reported, while that demographic accounts for about 20 percent of the overall population. “Measuring by social class, education level, employment status, or company size, the same alarming disparity is clear. In this respect, the UK is definitely behind the best in class, with nations such as Australia and Japan having less inequality on certain dimensions.”

Middle of European Pack

The firm asserts that the United Kingdom is in the second tier of Internet penetration among European nations, showing some progress — but not leading the pack.

Sweden and Finland lead with 40 and 38 percent penetration rates, respectively. The UK follows with 22 percent, followed by the Netherlands with 18 percent, Germany with 14 percent and France with 13 percent.

Spain, Italy and Portugal are at the back of the pack with eight, seven and five percent Internet penetration, respectively.

Another Opportunity to Follow America

U.S. universities first got the Internet ball rolling, and U.S. companies turned it into a place of business, so it follows that the United States is also the place to exhibit the first signs of serious harm from the digital gap.

Since receiving the results of the initial U.S. Department of Commerce study last summer, the federal government, local governments and the private sector have responded with a variety of programs to funnel computer equipment, training, Internet service and small business guidance to the areas that need it most.

Booz Allen & Hamilton told British Prime Minister Tony Blair to consider similar action, as the firm predicts that the UK’s Internet access rate will plateau at 60 percent by 2003. With government programs to stimulate further growth, the group said, “bringing 70 percent of the UK population online by 2003 — with universal access by 2005 — is ambitious but achievable.”

The consulting firm suggests that the British government shift its classification of telecommunications companies to central utilities, which would force them to lower their rates by an average of five percent. In exchange, it suggested that the government offer tax incentives to companies that provide Internet equipment/access to under-served populations or offer equipment and training to employees.

Like the U.S., “the United Kingdom needs a national infrastructure of low-cost, publicly-available Internet terminals,” the consulting firm argues.

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