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The Digital Divide

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Ashley Highfield | 11:30 UK time, Wednesday, 30 January 2008

digital_divide_posts.pngThe digital divide is the increasingly gaping void between those who are "connected", with two-way, video-rich, on-demand media being pumped into their home (or mobile device) over IP ("Internet Protocol"), and those who aren't: of the 40% of adults in the UK who don't have internet access, we reckon half of them have very negative attitudes to new media and don't see the benefit of the internet, the red button and - to a certain extent - mobile phones.

A two-tier nation. Every bit as stark a divide as would be access to free health care for some and not others.

I believe this is what the BBC, the broadband and media industry, government and Ofcom could, and should, collectively begin to focus much more time and energy on. With that in mind, I thought much of the debate at the recent Oxford Media Convention was perhaps pointed in the wrong direction.

james_purnell_omc2.jpg
James Purnell at the OMC. Image by Bill Thompson.

Lets start with Ofcom's idea of a new Public Service Publisher - "PSP".

The conference apparently rang out the "death knell" [see paragraph ten of the article linked to] for the idea of this new body (aka "Arts Council of the Air"), possibly funded from top-slicing the the Beeb's licence fee and creating a new alternative public service new media function.

I was on a lively panel at the conference with two of its strongest advocates, Tom Loosemore (previously of this parish), and Anthony Lilley (CEO Magic Lantern) - both working in some capacity at Ofcom.

I apparently upset Anthony, pointing out how his line had changed in a year, from "there could well be a central PSP service and site - in order to showcase projects for instance - [but] it is not envisaged that the PSP should be set up as a distribution platform in its own right" (quoted in full this time!) to a new softer line where he and Tom talked about merely "dropping stones in the water to cause ripples in government".

If I made a cheap shot, then I apologise. But the PSP was already holed below the water-line before my supposed broadside, when, at the RTS Cambridge Media Conference last year, those most likely to be in favour (Independent producers) called the idea of a new internet alternative to the BBC and Channel 4's offering a "balkanisation of commissioning". MPs later gave it a grilling, too.

So let's move on.

The PSP was a solution searching for a problem. Perhaps too voguishly looking at a supposed market failure in the production of social media, gaming, and open rights mashable content. There may be gaps in what the BBC does here, and we may be accused of being "constitutionally incapable" of understanding this brave new 2.0 world, but I don't see any market failure in this area: there is a wealth of social, all rights free, professionally published and user-generated content offering public value available: from both commercial players, and from the likes of Wikipedia. I don't see what gap in the UK's media ecology the PSP was trying to plug.

The gap that is there is the digital divide, and recent research indicates that while the percentage of people on the wrong side of the divide may be gradually falling, the remaining rump are hardening in their resistance to digital technologies. I have long been an advocate of not just the BBC's but all players role in helping to bring about " Connected Britain plc", for the benefit of the individual as well as of society.

In a speech I made back in 2004, I called for

a joint initiative with Government, players in the broadband supply chain (both commercial and public sector) and the BBC with its airwaves and cross-promotional opportunities to target those members of society who might find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Well, I and others failed to get such an initiative off the ground. The resurgence in the dot.com market during 2005 led many (not least the previous BBC Chairman Michael Grade) to believe that getting to 100% broadband penetration (availability and take-up and regular usage) would be "axiomatic". Rather like television and radio, everyone would eventually get connected. Without intervention, I do not believe that to be so. For a start, building out the necessary network so that everyone in the country can have truly high-speed broadband will be expensive, and may require the same push from the government as did local loop unbundling.

Bill Thompson (as reported at the Convention - sixteenth paragraph in) has been thinking along similar lines, advocating "a public sector internet".

So how do we get to a more connected Britain?

Broadband roll-out and take up suggests we'll get to about 70-80% by 2012. High speed internet mobile devices with large screens will add another 10% unique reach, meaning we'll have around 2.5-5m homes in the UK outside, looking in, at the time that the world's attention turns on us for the London Olympics.

What may be required is a two-phase approach. The first phase from now to 2012 is to work with Government, Ofcom (and this is where PSP thinking could now focus), the internet service providers, and the wider new media industry, to come up with a South Korean style blue-print. A clear vision and action plan for a digitally enabled society. A newly empowered Broadband Stakeholders Group (under Kip Meek, ex Ofcom, now at Ingenious) might do it. It would include a range of initiatives to provide access, and encourage demand, and enable take-up to the last 20%.

We would like to work with rest of the industry to develop a set of open standards for IP devices into the home. These open-standards devices would connect to both TV (over DTT or DSAT) and the Internet. This should enable any organisation to publish their content and applications to it (like Facebook) to a common look and feel. I'm thinking of services ranging from BBC iPlayer to NHS Direct, from Facebook to booking a driving test. You'd still need a broadband subscription, which might still be out of the reach of many, which leads me to phase 2.

digital_is_coming.pngAt 2012, we'll have a clear view of how many homes and people are left outside of digital Britain (and a better understanding of the economic and social impact of such a divide).

With almost 100% availability of high speed internet by then, whether by fixed-line IP to the PC, IP-connected TVs, wi-max, or mobile devices, the focus will be on helping as many as possible of the last cohorts on board. How?

Well, a similar framework and set of principles have already been created with the BBC-managed Targeted Help Scheme for the switchover from analogue TV to digital. £600m of the BBC licence fee up to 2012 has been allocated to offer targetted support to help the elderly and disabled make the switch.

Could a similar scheme be introduced post 2012 (perhaps even rolling over any underspend on the first digital TV targetted help scheme), which might include not just a box subsidy but also a subsidised broadband connection for those unable to pay?

The Guardian's Owen Gibson says [paragraph 28]:

[broadband Britain] could yet proved an opportunity for the BBC and is in line with its mission.

But should or shouldn't the BBC get involved in the ideas I've outlined? I'd welcome your thoughts.

Ashley Highfield is Divisional Director, BBC Future Media & Technology.

Comments

  1. At 02:30 PM on 30 Jan 2008, pete wrote:

    Talking about a digital divide seems a touch alarmist. Is anyone going to starve to death just because they can't download the latest season of Lost? The internet is great for research, but then so are libraries. I dunno, maybe I'm missing something here. It's true that life may become increasingly inconvenient for the internet-less barbarians on the other side of the chasm, but that seems about the extent of it. Besides, we're taking for granted that wired life is, on balance, a better way for people to live. Neil Postman's "Technopoly" just gets more and more relevant.

  2. At 09:39 AM on 31 Jan 2008, Leyton Jay wrote:

    As a Web Developer I can say from experience that the biggest barrier to internet uptake for new users (noobs) is understanding how websites work and how to navigate them.

    Many sites, FaceBook being a prime example, are complicated with poor navigation and links that have confusing titles. This confounds many of the older generation or those whose native language may not be English. It might sound cool to "write on someone's wall" but "leaving them a message" would be easier to understand.

    Having a common navigation framework and a similar look and feel is one idea, but that rather impacts on design and may lead to sites becoming homogenised. The design and layout of a site is what makes it unique, I wouldnt want a powerful, useful site I'd spent time creating to look similar to a porn site or trivial interest site.

    I think that for now having some commonality in navigation would be of great help. For example on most sites clicking the company logo will return you to the homepage, but not all. And the use of text links at the top of the page (breadcrumbs) to chart your journey into the site from the homepage is useful but often overlooked.

    My website employs both these techniques and I have been congratulated on my navigation by several noobies, my Dad amongst them.

  3. At 12:12 PM on 31 Jan 2008, Paul Jones wrote:

    A similar divide probably took place when the launch of television competed with wireless radio, the only difference here is that accessing the web requires a huge amount of interactivity and technophobes avoid it like the plague.

    An intersting statistic in this debate would be the age gap within the divide. I would assume many adults over the age of 50 would fall in to the 40% who are not 'connected' and until the 13 year old youth grow in to the adult population we will see the divide become smaller and smaller.

    If media companies want to target the older demographic they should spen the time and money educating the users or at the very least offer them something they can consume online at a personal level.

    On the BBC site, the BBCi Player is a good example of someone targeting this audiene with something useful and familiar. Watching happy slapping videos and 'Rate my mate' probably wouldn't appeal to your average middle aged user.

    Once we reach speeds of 50+Mb per second at an affordable rate I'm sure the divede will reduce and you will see online media consumption take over television and radio.

  4. At 04:21 PM on 03 Feb 2008, Juan wrote:

    I see where your coming from, basically
    1)"The BBC cant afford not to move forwards with technology"
    2)"How can the BBC justify using the money of people without the technology to do this?"
    and to a lesser extent
    3)"How can the BBC provide a service that requires a user to pay businesses to use?"
    Although tbh we have to pay for electricity if we watch TV so is broadband any different!

    I assume there are 2 groups that might have problems getting online, the old who dont want to and those who cant afford it.

    For the old, id suggest setting up the iPlayer & digital TV so that signing* & teletext are available on all the programs. Id also setup a colourblind & highcontrast mode for all on screen text. And sorry to sound harsh but you seam to have forgotten the fact that older generations die, by 2012 there will be less old people who arn't used to using the internet.

    With the cost of computers & broadband dropping, I'm not sure if there's a need for any action. And if there was action it should be BBC supported not BBC funded!
    Subsidizing the cost of broadband, would have to be done right, not how the current setup to 'help' people with gas and electricity. An important cost to take into account would that of setting broadband up, here the government could help or hinder, in blocks of houses it would probably help to install networking equipment to al the homes, but then they could end up limiting the choice of the tenants and screwing them over with a subscription to some terrible ISP.

    As for people without computers, well the government could easily supply low end PCs to homes for about (£95 (parts from ebuyer) + cost of building it - discount for buying directly) between £50 - £75 + the cost of a display (unfortunately ebuyer only listed displays that cost more than the computer). Even without subsidizing is £75 - £125 for a computer too much to ask ( £3 - £5 a month for 2 years ), hell the government could be really cleaver and just rent them out for £1 - £2 a month. Oh and ship it with linux + OO so there are no software costs ;-)

  5. At 10:23 PM on 08 Feb 2008, Eamon wrote:

    The old (actually new) cliche: Content is King. Technology, 'brand utility', and so on and so forth, all have their uses but at the end of the day what people want is good content (to be entertained and to be informed).

  6. At 02:02 AM on 24 Mar 2008, Mark wrote:

    From my point of view as an ordinary punter, I see all things 'digital' as a great way of communicating with people I'd never have met otherwise. It's great to see the BBC pushing to help those who might be unwilling / unable to connect at the moment - but in my own mind, there's also a divide between seeing the BBC as one (among many) publishers / mediators of content, and its role as catalyst / player in bringing about universal access to all sorts of digital services. Is there not a conflict of interest here, potentially, for the BBC?

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