Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

Archive for the 'Digital divide (developed countries)' Category | back to home

5 January 2004

It’s good to see the UK government has ambitious plans to ensure its citizens have Internet access. Recently British Telecom (responding no doubt to government pressure) announced it will guarantee that all of Britain will have “broadband availability by 2005”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3276621.stm – possibly to be accomplished using new “radio broadband”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3323681.stm technology it is testing.

More impressive still, it now seems the Government is promising “home access for all”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3320967.stm – ‘every home in the UK should have a connection to online services through a digital network by 2008 – whether through a personal computer, digital television, mobile phone or other device’.

Of course this is not as marvelous a promise as it seems since it is not a commitment to provision of the full Internet – only nebulously-defined ‘online services’ – almost certainly limited at the margins to email and basic government services. It also says nothing about likely user costs or incentives for use (without which the theoretical capacity to connect will likely languish unused in the third of UK households who don’t already have Internet access).

6 December 2003

A new neighborhood aimed at young middle class folk in Orange County seem to have benefited from a neighborhood intranet [article in LA Times – requires registration]. It brought people together by giving them an easy way to find common interests and solve common problems (like babysitting) without having to go knock on people’s doors. What is not clear is how beneficial such an intranet would be to existing neighborhoods and to neighborhoods with a mix of rich and poor in the same area.

Thanks to “Keith Hampton”:http://www.mysocialnetwork.net/index2.php?p=37&c=1 for the link (he did an influential academic study of the building of social capital in an earlier experiment outside of Toronto).

5 December 2003

The iGeneration includes some guest opinion pieces about the “World Summit on the Information Society”:http://www.itu.int/wsis/ , some basic facts and figures and some (generally rather upbeat, uncritical) case studies of ICT use in the developing world.

To take one example of their treatment of the significance of ICT use in the developing world, the BBC profiles a “Brazilian telecentre using Linux”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3250876.stm in a poor area of Sao Paulo with the stated aim of improving employability. Well:
1) users only get an hour a day – not much time to learn
2) I wonder how many of the users are using the connections to learn skills and how many are simply recreationally surfing or emailing
3) I wonder whether programming or software-using skills based on Linux are transferable to the commercial market in Brazil (possibly more so than elsewhere since the Brazilian government appears increasingly interested in promoting Linux use, but still a concern)
4) As “Steve Buckley”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3251024.stm hints at, I wonder whether the money spent on the telecentre might have better been spent on, say, a conventional literacy programme or some other intervention.

More money to close the digital divide would of course be welcome but not if it comes at the expense of other programmes…

8 November 2003

I recently learned about “Keith Hampton”:http://web.mit.edu/knh/www/bio.html’s new “weblog”:http://e-neighbors.mit.edu/blog/index2.php and already it has turned up something useful. He just blogged about the release of “preliminary results”:http://www.eurescom.de/e-living/publications/e-living-update-Oct03.pdf from a major study of adoption and usage patterns of Internet use, testing the social and economic benefits of new ICTs.

The best part is that if you are interested in the information for non-commercial/academic reasons you can download the raw survey data and manipulate it yourself (once you have registered yourself at the “UK Social Science Data Archive”:http://www.data-archive.ac.uk/findingData/snDescription.asp?sn=4728).

22 October 2003

I fear I have somewhat misrepresented Ian’s position on “‘bonsai’ (128Kbps) broadband” It’s not that he thinks it is going to disappoint everyone – speed, phone line blocking and always-on remain the main drivers to broadband adoption according to Jupiter. But he believes that, ‘once consumers switch to such a ‘bonsai broadband’ product they will then become disillusioned that they can’t do the activities that they will have been led to believe possible on broadband (even though these may not have been their main motivations they may be ‘nice to haves’ and which they expected to have).’

This is a very fair point. In an attempt to make broadband sexy, broadband providers promise things like “Movies and TV on demand”:http://www.bt.com/broadband/ which they just can’t deliver. But I would contend it isn’t just the ‘bonsai broadband’ companies that can’t offer this – you can’t get streaming TV or movies via most other broadband providers either – “HomeChoice”:http://www.homechoice.co.uk/ is the obvious UK exception. 512Kbps or even 1Mbps isn’t fast enough for adequate streaming video across the Internet (except for Flash animation or short films where the small size and occaisional jerkiness aren’t so much of a problem). Even if the speed were good enough, there just isn’t a wide range of on-demand high quality video available online yet (see my “Broadband Content category”:https://blog.org/archives/cat_broadband_content.html for more on this point).

So if people do want VOD, the broadband available to consumers today generally won’t give it to them, so those people would be disappointed with any broadband, not just ‘bonsai broadband’. I contend, however that a customer that has always-on Internet without blocking their phone line (two out of three of Ian’s key broadband drivers) will likely be happy and that someone like that would be almost as happy with ‘bonsai broadband’ as they would be with today’s commercial broadband.

The next step forward will happen when/if 2-4Mbps broadband to the home becomes cheap enough for the consumer and broadband providers strike VOD deals and a large BBC “Creative Archive” comes online.

21 October 2003

An old colleague of mine, “Ian Fogg”:http://weblogs.jupiterresearch.com/analysts/fogg/ (a Jupiter analyst), commented in an “earlier posting”:https://blog.org/archives/000896.html that he didn’t think ‘cheap broadband’ at 150kbps would would ‘really offer the full broadband experience that customers expect’. The reasons he gave were interesting, and reveal I think a kind of ‘supplier led’ thinking that is holding back broadband takeup.

* ‘150kbs is not sufficient for good quality [streamed] mp3 music’
How many people want to listen to streamed music? How many subscribers have services like Real One managed to sign up? If you are at work in a sympathetic company you might use it instead of bringing a radio in to work, but if you are at home you already have a radio! People who really want broadband for music are (I’m guessing) relying on broadband to download tracks either legally or (more probably) illegally.

* ‘To build community around online games, it’s important to enable access to add-on levels, and enable players to host, or run, their own games’ – well, I could see there would be a problem if a broadband games player frequently found they were being asked to download a map from within a game and they then found the ‘game cycles to the next level and the player has missed playing’. But if you found that to be a problem as a player you could also just go off and download the necessary files from one of many fan sites. As for hosting, I have played many, many online games and I have only hosted one or two. As long as one of your friends has ‘proper’ broadband this is not a problem.

* ‘it’s still good value if you care about price and mainly email and web browsing’ [but]… it doesn’t exactly encourage third parties to deliver rich video/audio content and applications … and subscribers that expect broadband to enable a richer online experience will be disappointed.’

Aha! But we’re not talking here about what subscribers *should* want from their broadband in order to support a healthy industry – we’re talking about what they *actually want*. And all the evidence I have seen is that what subscribers value most from broadband is always on/instant on connection, better web browsing and no arguments about who is on the line. A smaller segment may value download of large files but if you no longer need to worry about the ‘clock ticking’ on your connection does it really matter if that game demo comes down in the background in four hours or two?

My personal view is that the only commercial service that would cause a substantial increase in the desire for ‘true broadband’ would be something like iTunes but for TV and movie content. (And yes I know you can already download movies but so far this is very much a minority sport because of bandwidth problems).

My guess about the best way to boost broadband takeup is to a) offer it at £15 a month with speed limits (but no publicised download caps) and b) offer free three month trials – I imagine enough of the people who get it would keep it that this would pay for the installation costs for the few who tried and rejected it.

Of course I may be wrong – I am basing this largely on my own experience, friends, gut instinct and (to a lesser extent) on the ‘iSociety’s broadband research’:http://www.theworkfoundation.com/pdf/broadband.pdf

If there is, however, evidence that the consumer wants what the broadband content industry wants them to want then please bring it on!

11 October 2003

I just read that Demos – an influential UK thinktank – has now put almost all of its catalogue up online for free download (using a “license”:http://www.demos.co.uk/aboutus/openaccess_page296.aspx derived from the “Creative Commons”:http://www.creativecommons.org/ license).

Worth a browse if you are a UK-based policy wonk…

9 October 2003

The UK Government’s “Strategy Unit”:http://www.number10.gov.uk/output/Page77.asp (a civil service department promoting forward planning) has just put out a report on “The Future of Social Exclusion”:http://www.number10.gov.uk/files/pdf/socexissues.pdf [PDF].

I am disappointed that it barely mentions the role of the digital divide and while it describes the gap (using figures that are four years old) it doesn’t say anything about how, in the Government’s view it has emerged, or what they intend to do about it. I know the Government is concerned about this issue – I hope the sketchiness of the response in this particular document is not representative of the priority the issue is now being given.

7 October 2003

“A new survey”:http://users.ox.ac.uk/~oxis/index.html by the “Oxford Internet Institute”:http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/ has provided some invaluable detail about the exact nature of the digital divide. I find the conclusions drawn in media reports as interesting as the data itself. The Guardian’s headline and opening paragraphs: Digitally divided by choice concentrate on the survey’s discovery that only 14 percent (mis-reported as four percent) of the UK population doesn’t have Internet access themselves and doesn’t at least know someone who could send an email for them.

It’s true that many of those who are not online themselves could get access at local libraries or ‘borrow’ Internet access from a friend, but without much first-hand experience of Internet access they are unlikely to understand what it could do for them.

The BBC: “Net ‘worth little to many Brits'”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3121950.stm gets more to the heart of the matter, though its headline is misleading – it should say something more like, ‘Net perceived as unimportant by many Brits’.

I think Tom Steinberg gets it exactly right when he “suggests”:http://partnerships.typepad.com/civic/2003/09/its_about_the_v.html that if 96% of Internet non-users don’t feel they are missing anything it is important that government and civil society organizations start giving them good reasons to get interested. I would add that the way the Internet is presented when it is discussed is also at fault. The Government depicts it as a way to learn and get employed, commercial organizations depict it as a place to shop and the news often depicts it as full of oddballs and paedophiles. There isn’t much room for discussion of how to use it to meet people (other than sexual partners), express yourself creatively or to organize politically.

It is worth noting that the questionnaire options for perceived disadvantages of lack of Internet access appear to be limited to: ‘could do job better [if I was online]’, ‘trouble being contacted’ and ‘disadvantaged at work’. Nothing about learning, information gathering or even saving money let alone political organizing as possible things someone might have missed out on.

The information available via the OII and news reports remains sketchy – the full results are due to be publicised and discussed “in Oxford on 22nd October”:http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/events.shtml

Thanks to “Techdirt”:http://techdirt.com/articles/20030918/0047201.shtml for the link

6 October 2003

David Docherty may be self-serving in this Guardian article plugging “YooPublica”:http://www.yoomedia.com/Public_Sector.html his commercial public sector digital TV initiative, but that doesn’t mean his idea is wrong. He suggests that the people at the bottom of the ladder who will be the last to switch to digital TV should get Government-sponsored set top boxes that also deliver government services – essentially a return to the “business model” of Minitel, which became a widespread interactive service in France because it was subsidised by the government to replace the phone book (not that it did, but that’s another story).

Back in November I suggested that something like this would “be a good idea”:https://blog.org/archives/cat_egovernment.html#000540 and if I hadn’t been busy on other things I always meant to write something for a think tank suggesting it. Glad to see someone else out there had a similar idea and is trying to make it happen.

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