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UK entrepreneur takes on digital divide

Heads Government task force
Tue Oct 13 2009, 17:18

THE UK ECONOMY could gain £22bn in economic benefits by ensuring that people who do not currently use the Internet get connected, according to the government task force headed by founder Martha Lane Fox.

Following her appointment as digital inclusion champion in June, Lane Fox is combining her business connections and the latest research by The Office of Digital Inclusion - which she heads up - to create public and private partnerships that support her action plan.

The initiative, dubbed Race Online 2012, will target the digitally and socially excluded - estimated to be 14 million people - with the aim of getting them all online in the next three years.

“There is no single answer [to closing the digital divide]. We need the private sector to work together to give incentives for people, along with the government and those of us who can help spread IT skills,” Lane Fox told Computing in an exclusive interview.

There are wider initiatives within the action plan that tackle some of the reasons people give for choosing to be digitally excluded – such as identity theft – but Lane Fox prefers to concentrate on the “positive message”.

“It is an ambitious project, but other countries have done it. And there are some compelling reasons for driving this forward,” she said.

The prospective savings in the public sector alone are considerable – according to the research, £900m of customer contact savings could be generated if digitally excluded adults were online.

A group of businesses are involved in supporting the initiative, such as BT, Intel, Google, as well as electrical retailer Comet - which plans to trial an in-store scheme to help older customers familiarise themselves with the web.

Lane Fox’s work around digital inclusion is part of Digital Britain, the government’s blueprint for the future role of technology in the UK.

The National Plan for Digital Participation aims to “increase the reach, breadth and depth of digital technology used across all sections of society, and to maximise digital participation and the economic and social benefits it can bring.”

Some £12m of funding will go to a “consortium of stakeholders”, led by regulator Ofcom - the group is tasked with achieving an online equivalent of the digital TV switchover to help move the UK onto to the internet. The group will also be working with Lane Fox.

In order to promote digital inclusion, however, connectivity needs to be made more accessible to users by lowering the cost and extending the coverage of broadband networks.

To that end, the government is pressing ahead with the broadband tax on residential network connections to fund next-generation optical fibre access.

“The trouble here is that backers of public funded network infrastructures still need to find ways of encouraging market forces to lower end user prices,” said Gartner’s research vice president Scott Morrison.

“But nobody has rolled out higher speed and lower cost broadband to purely rural areas to date,” he added.

Of the estimated £22bn in financial benefits to come from digital inclusion - the largest chunk, £8.85bn, relates to income generated through increased online sales.

Greater access to consumers through the web is one of the main advantages of digital inclusion for businesses, said Morrison.

“Organisations which rely on customer self-serve are benefitting from a competitive edge as they make greater use of service portals and increased automation of back office processes to handle customer interactions,” he said.

According to Morrison, such approaches can significantly reduce the number of staff needed, thereby reducing costs, and greater use of the web can also improve access to employees through remote working.

“Remote workers are often relied on to fulfil specific job roles, but in general, our surveys indicate that they are more productive, more willing to stretch, and – in the case of teleworkers – less expensive to employ than their office-based counterparts,” he said.

"In particular small businesses are at a competitive disadvantage if they don't enable staff to work in this way. While certain individuals would certainly benefit from remote teleworking – such as those on incapacity benefit who are currently unable to make it into a regular office place. These people are being locked out of such employment opportunities."

From an employment perspective, the Race Online 2012 report suggests that unemployed people who become connected could increase their lifetime earnings by over £12,000.

The report also maintains that if five per cent of the digitally excluded unemployed could find work by using job websites, an estimated £560m could be generated for the UK economy. µ


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