Thought for the day: The great digital deficit

Is the UK Online initiative in danger of stumbling before it's even left the ground? Simon Moores seems to think so, given no one...

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Is the UK Online initiative in danger of stumbling before it's even left the ground? Simon Moores seems to think so, given no one seems to know where the long-term funding is coming from.



Almost three years ago, I wrote a feature for The Observer, called ‘Welcome to the aftermath of the old economy’, and in it I asked if it was possible to solve the challenge of the so-called "digital divide" in the time the government imagined was possible.

Since then, of course, we’ve witnessed some remarkable changes. My local post office in London is crammed wall to wall with young South Africans picking up their Hotmail, but the one in my home town in Kent still hasn’t a PC in sight, although its Iraqi population has swollen significantly over the past 12 months.

Broadband here is no closer than Baghdad which, last week, opened its first internet café, ahead of BT, which promises to upgrade the local exchange once the weapons inspectors have left this quiet seaside town.

But we have to start somewhere, and our government generously funded the expansion of 6,000 UK Online Centres in an effort to guarantee internet access for the 50 million or so people who can’t find it elsewhere.

Funding these centres has cost £370m to date and, since the prime minister enthused about the programme at the eSummit in November, I’ve been wondering how long government could afford to dig deep. After all, PCs in a public access environment aren’t likely to last long, so what happens when the next technology refit is demanded in 18 months' time?

It appears that the National Audit Office (NAO) has been asking the same questions and The New Opportunities Fund (NOF) has stated that "lottery money is unlikely to be a source of future revenue funding for UK Online centres, as this money is intended to be used for specific, one-off, interventions that are time-limited".

In fact, the report by the NAO states, "Moreover, some of those centres most placed to reach disadvantaged target groups are likely to be least able to find funds from elsewhere." It continues: "If UK Online centres are forced to close, it is not clear whether there will be sufficient resources available to set up a replacement in the vicinity."

Not only is the programme expensive but there’s very limited information on who is actually using the services provided, which leaves us with 6,000, very expensive UK Online centres to be maintained and a digital deficit of around 40 million citizens. A gap which is unlikely to be closed without, in my estimation, another £500m being injected over the next five years.

There is, I suspect, very little hope of government being able to find this kind of money without the rest of us feeling more pain from higher taxes, so it rather begs the question, is the UK Online initiative sustainable within some kind of public-private sector partnership?

In the cities and larger towns, where businesses are more likely to afford some kind of sponsorship, then maybe. But in those areas where the UK Online concept is most needed, it may, as the NAO fears, risk becoming like other, more essential services, a brand more characterised by its absence than its evidence and a monument to the indivisibility of the so-called digital divide.

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Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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