Time to end the digital divide

To compete in today's markets companies must cross the divide between the PC haves and have-nots

To compete in today's markets companies must cross the divide between the PC haves and have-nots

It astounds me that there are still businesses in the UK today which are run without a PC. The thought of not being able to send an e-mail, visit a Web site or pull up a spreadsheet at will is alien to me, and it is difficult to think of any business - high tech or low - that would not benefit from a network of PCs.

Recognising that small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) make the economy tick, we regularly put them under the microscope. Our research found that one in five is doing business without a PC, and 30% of the smallest firms - with fewer than 10 employees - are PC-free. Ten per cent of SMEs do not have Internet access or e-mail, and 38% are not running a company Web site.

With the benefits of information and communication technologies (ICT) well documented, these statistics take some getting used to.

We may not hold all the answers about why ICT take-up is slow for some, but through talking to the people who actually run small businesses, we found five main barriers:

  • A lack of IT skills and understanding

  • Shortage of time

  • Fear

  • Up-front cash outlays

  • The need for a better understanding of the benefits.

These issues are understandable but, more important, are also addressable.

My nature is to think in positives, but there is, in business as much as in society, a "digital deficit", with the information "haves" drawing away from the "have-nots".

There are companies struggling to attract new customers, yet not running a Web site. There are managers faced with communicating with staff and suppliers, yet not using e-mail. There are businesses wanting to research new geographic markets for expansion that are not familiar with search engines such as Google.

The positive twist on this is that if we can increase take-up among businesses of all types, it will ramp up the UK's competitiveness.

There is a distinct division between those businesses harnessing the advantages of ICT, and those that are struggling on regardless.

And that division is magnified by the newest addition to the ICT stable - broadband - which offers clear benefits to business: speed, constant connectivity and high data capacity.

You probably thought I would not discuss broadband on the same page as digital inclusion. But, not one to dodge an issue, I will.

Right now, 66% of UK homes and businesses are connected to broadband-enabled exchanges, representing about three-quarters of all Internet users.

Some people think that BT has an obligation to provide broadband to 100% of the UK, so that every person can have an ADSL connection at home or at work if they want one. We do not agree, but we are working relentlessly to provide services country-wide.

We have enabled more than 1,100 exchanges and are reviewing another 500. We are also ready to work in partnership with the public sector to provide broadband where commercial logic alone does not justify the investment, and this is already happening in Wales and Cornwall.

But demand is key. If a small business is running without a PC, without e-mail or Internet access, how can it have a vision of the benefits of broadband?
And all of these points apply to consumers in their homes as well as businesses.

At one end of the scale, BT serves about 180,000 ADSL customers. But at the other is the 50% of the UK population who have yet to go online. We are actively working in four low-income communities to see what BT - and others - can do to help to improve digital inclusion. Working with councils in Newcastle, Croydon, Restormel and Stoke, our project aims to get to the root of why people in poorer areas are less likely to have ever used a PC or surfed the Net.

We know that the problem is not just about providing hardware and access. It is about demonstrating that the technology is relevant, that it's fun - and that gaining the skills to exploit it can be empowering.

And the same applies to businesses.

The key to getting smaller companies to harness ICT is to show managers that it is accessible, relevant, enjoyable, easy - and can make their business soar. In 2002, there should not be one company in this country struggling without the invaluable basics of a PC or Internet access. And, if BT has anything to do with it, the PC-free business will become as obsolete as the Bakelite phone.

Ben Verwaayen is chief executive officer of BT Group

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)