The Ayrshire Electronic Community has been designed to give Internet access to people who live in often remote communities around the Clyde in Scotland. In this area, fewer than one in 10 households have access to a PC and Internet connections are even harder to find, writes Venetia Thompson.
The group has created PC and Internet-access centres in community centres, libraries and clubs where people can learn how to use the technology. Some of the larger centres have broadband access.
The volunteer-run centres provide IT training for rural farms, villages and towns whose traditional industries of mining, textiles and shipbuilding have disappeared. People are offered training in Web page design for businesses as well as help for those who have never used the Internet before.
Funding for the project comes from a consortium led by East Ayrshire Council, with Scottish Enterprise, the local branch of the Benefits Agency and the area's primary healthcare trust also contributing. Additional backing is provided by the European Regional Development Fund.
BT provided the Internet protocol virtual private network and management support. BT regional manager Frank Mills says: "It's a shared facility so you pay for what you use."
Local people are using the set-up to claim benefits online, for instance, and if they have any problems the trained volunteers will help out.
Programme manager Maureen Walker says, "If we take people's interest as the starting point, we will get them using computers before they realise it. We're giving them access without pressure."
She says 58 community groups have received training, giving them a Web presence and access to a wider market.
Other organisations, such as the North Ayrshire Forum on Disability, have used the Internet to get in touch with similar groups around the UK. Four colleges have created an e-learning network opening up more training opportunities.
Poverty, unemployment and poor skills have all added to barriers for taking up the Internet in this area. The project's aim is to re-skill and boost the confidence of a community which has high rates of long-term unemployment.
Since the project began earlier this year, 21,000 people have trained on the Internet.
Walker thinks that with a wider skills base, more technology companies might relocate to the area. "Our vision is of a broadband, wired-up community," she says.
The project's funding is due to end this year, although organisers are putting together a plan to keep the services running. Stuart Hill, director of BT StepChange, says, "The digital divide must not happen. The Internet can give these people a voice."
This was first published in December 2001