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.