Britain’s digital divide remains unbridged: Ofcom Report

Posted on May 2, 2006  /  2 Comments

by Martyn Warwick – 28/4/2006 11:57:47

Ofcom, the UK’s uber-regulator of telecoms and the media has just published its Communications Market Report for the Nations and Regions of the UK. It analyses the availability, take-up and usage of telecoms, Internet and broadcasting services and applications across the whole of the British Isles. The watchdog will use the comprehensive new report as the empirical basis for much of its ongoing and future regulation

Ofcom conducted the research late last year, and, although things have moved on a bit since, the new report provides the most up-to-date snapshot of the British telecoms, web and broadcasting landscape that we have, and it shows not only that the UK has a marked digital divide but also that it is proving difficult to bridge.

The figures show that 61 per cent of rural homes have Internet access, and that, surprisingly, is higher then the national average figure of 57 per cent. However, only 55 per cent of connected rural home have broadband Internet access, the rest are still on dial-up, a methodology that is all but dead and gone in Britain’s conurbations. Nationwide, broadband access in the UK has now reached 63 per cent.

Ed Richards, Ofcom’s COO, says, “Clearly this split is a new dimension to the digital divide. It manifests itself now in things like digital terrestrial TV availability and, increasingly, in the availability of competitive infrastructure even for current levels of broadband access. It will manifest itself, in due course, in the extent to which very high speed broadband access is available to all parts of the UK. It is a very important new dimension to the communications landscape.”

On the mobile front, the report produces evidence to show that although Napoleon described us as a nation of shopkeepers, in recent years we have transmuted and have become a country of texters. Mobile subscribers now send more SMS messages (an average of 28 each) than they make voice or data calls (the average here is 20 a week) However, mobile users in London make more calls (an average of 35 a week) than they send text messages. Ofcom says part of the reason for this anomaly could be that many people working in the capital have their monthly mobile phone bills paid for by their employers.

People in Northern Ireland and the East Midlands of England send the most texts (37.5 a week, although what use half an SMS is beats me) but 30 per cent of the residents of Ulster do not subscribe to mobile phone services. This means those that do and belt out 37.5 texts a week must be developing thumbs that look more like dinner plates than the averagely normal human digit. Northern Ireland too is the lowest in the league of those taking up digital TV. Some 53 per cent of households there have either satellite or terrestrial digital TV services compared to the nationwide average of 65 per cent. Ofcom says this could well be because average household incomes in Northern Irelend are considerably lower than on the mainland and people have less disposable cash to spend on “luxuries” such as cable or satellite TV.

That said though, digital TV penetration is highest of all in Wales, and average income there, at £466 a week, is actually a pound lower than in Northern Ireland. However, 72 per cent of the Welsh population has digital TV.

Not surprisingly, it is Londoners, the people who get paid the most but also face the highest cost of living in the UK, who spend the most on fast Internet access and mobile and fixed telecoms services. The average London household pays £18.20 a week for such services, £3 more than anywhere else in Britain.

However, take-up of digital TV in the metropolis is the lowest in the UK, with just 58 per cent of the population signing-up for services. This could well be because Londoners have a different lifestyle to much of the rest of the country. Rather than fighting their way onto crowded rush-hour transport, many working in the capital choose to socialise directly after work, visiting the pub for an hour or two before tackling the chore of schlepping across town to a late meal and an early bed. Furthermore, Londoners move house more often than anyone else in the country and, Ofcom says, are consequently less willing to sign-on for a minimum 12-month digital TV contract.

There’s also the fact that, while one may have access to five or six hundred channels, crap TV is still crap TV and most channels are full of old, re-cyled rubbish that isn’t worth fourpence never mind eighteen quid a month.

There’s a lot in the Ofcom report but the sections on Internet access are probably the most revealing. Across the UK as a whole it is evident that broadband Internet access is as much a class matter as anything else. The ABC 1 socio-economic group have the most subscriptions to high bandwidth services whilst the C2DE grouping has the least. Furthermore, 81 per cent of C2DE’s say they are not interested in having any Internet access at all. This is something that should cause the government some considerable concern.

The Blair administration has made much of the benefits of the whole of the population having access to high bandwidth services and has long extolled the virtues and prospects of “Broadband Britain” But, as we now know for sure, only parts of the country have the necessary broadband infrastructure in place and some socio-economic groups simply couldn”t care less about being on the information superhighway. The government has a major programme of education to put in place if it truly wants us all to be networked into the digital economy.


  1. That’s great living here in SL I really wanted to know how cheap and fast the UK broadband is…… Lucky if most people camn afford dial up here and if you get 1 Megabyte speed that is fast unlike the UK where they get 8 Megabyte speeds as standard and Video on demand down the telephone line. Am I being silly comparing but this is the reality here censored TV stations or expensive satellite and slow dial up great…….

  2. This is what I wrote about Digital divide in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately nobody understand the issue.

    Donald Gaminitillake—


    How do we solve the Digital Divide in Sri Lanka

    Donald Gaminitillake Dip. B.E.

    The word we hear most in the IT industry is “Digital Divide”. This is a result of the interaction among a number of variables which include social, economical and political. These factors are interrelated in a complex manner so that interpreting any single individual factor effecting digital divide is very difficult. It will be easy if any breaks this into smaller components and see how it affect the society.

    It could be divided into two basic parts as IT infrastructure and Educational infrastructure. This also could be allotted to Domestic (national) level, Industry level and International level. IT revolution emerged and started disseminating worldwide in 1995 just ten years ago.

    When the domestic sector is taken the “Digital Divide” was based on inequality in income distribution and unable to use local language in computer. In industry it was due to gaps in scale, growth and productivity.

    The policy makers make comments, how to narrow the “Digital Divide” between “haves” and “have-nots”. However such divide per se should not be construed as a negative trend as the living standards of the “haves” and “have-nots’ are both upgrading. In a developing country like Sri Lanka living standard of “haves” is increasing at a greater rate than the “have-nots”. The gap between the two inevitable, widens as a national economy grows at aggregate levels. In this type of a case the primary objective of the policymaker is not to narrow the gap between the two segments since the living standard is increasing on both groups but to introduce policies customized to meet differing demands in differing segments.

    One area that I would like to stress is functional literacy in terms of using English is significantly lower in rural Sri Lanka compared to urban areas. Given that the English is the medium most commonly used in internet the “Digital Divide” between urban and rural areas can be considered much greater than the literacy divide.

    This factor has been challenged at a small rural village in Sri Lanka. Horizon Lanka Academy has been able to produce the best GCE O/L results in the village. English has become the easiest subject for everyone it seems. 3 students have got A passes for English. This is the first time students from Mahavilachchiya got A passes for English.

    What if these children in rural areas were given the opportunity to use the computer in their own mother tongue either Sinhala or Tamil. They will definitely out performs the urban counter parts. This is the fear that our policy makers have. The digital wave of thinking is growing like a “tsunami” in the rural areas.

    Access to the internet typically requires a computer with a set of software, a modem, a telephone line and subscription to an internet service provider (ISP). Given the present levels of income in Sri Lanka, the cost of these requirements can be extremely expensive for the ordinary citizens. The high cost of internet access is attributed to the monopolistic structure of telecommunication industry. Even though there are several companies in Sri Lanka but the real coverage is very low. For 19 million people SLT land lines which have been commenced a service a century ago is less than a million against two million subscribers for mobile communications. To make the internet more accessible to the ordinary citizens, the concept of tele-centers appeared. The internet-café takes over the burden of hardware and software while the user pay only for the usage either in hourly basis or minute basis. These cafes may have made the internet accessible to the middle class who knows the English language but inaccessible to the typical poor country dweller who earns less than Rs 100 per day. Also Sri Lanka, internet do not provide much value or relevance to the rural population whose main livelihood is agriculture.

    Our country is agriculture dominant and people are mostly engaged in farming and related activities. Access to internet is very difficult because they lack the appropriate education and capabilities. First priority is to provide lifeline safety nets. e.g. Dial-up phones, e-learning aid in local languages and micro banking.

    The available human capital can be divide into two parts Physical Labour and Mental Labour. Physical labour is more abundant. Modern Industrial development provides opportunities for workers to enhance their skills and enable them to tackle work that requires mental aptitudes.

    To reduce the gap of “Digital Divide” the Government , The IT industry ,The Educational institutes, The Enterprises and Regional Organizations will have to get together draw up plans for the people. Each segment will have a different responsibility and a task to perform. The most common task would be the communicating language and its function for the people. Computerizing the ISO 9000 quality management standards in Sinhala and Tamil with local community strength is also an important factor. Education Institutes need to copy the model of technical colleges and polytechnics, where focus is on training practically oriented workforce. Enterprises can create websites of information for the local community in the areas of products, end costs, technology, capabilities and about job opportunities with dignity of labour. Unfortunately in my country Sri Lanka none of the above suggestion will not be able to implement until we use both ( Sinhala and Tamil in the computer