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Published: April 1, 2000

 
 

Internet Access for All: The UK Plan to Close the Digital Divide

The U.S. federal government spends $5.5 billion per year on projects facilitating the knowledge economy, ranging from wiring schools and libraries, to developing technologies that will broaden penetration. With the construction of the information superhighway well under way, President Clinton in a recent speech committed "to make connection to the Internet as common as connection to the telephone is today."

Governments of other leading online nations have set similar goals. Singapore's government has committed to offer "most public services over the Internet by 2001," and Finland has pledged to offer all government services online by 2001. The Finns have further committed to ensure that every citizen has an e-mail address by 2004, and to reduce government administration costs by one-third by 2002, through the use of IT and networks.

Australia has one of the most socially inclusive Internet user populations, thanks to a high level of government commitment, led by two dedicated bodies: the Office for Government Online, responsible for delivering government services online; and the National Office for the Information Economy, which coordinates broad knowledge economy policy. Japan, which is Asia's biggest e-commerce market, has a similar cross-governmental body, chaired by the prime minister.

The U.K. government has a well-defined "Information Age Strategy," with the goal of universal Internet access by 2005 the latest in a series of initiatives. The E-commerce@its.best.uk report launched by the prime minister last September included 60 commitments to further the growth of e-commerce in the U.K. The government has established targets for electronic delivery of government services (rising to 100 percent by 2008) and online government procurement, and it has appointed an e-minister and an e-envoy to provide cross-departmental leadership for these policies.

Government's policies on regulation and competition play an important role in creating the foundations for universal access in the U.K.; the 1999 Electronic Communications Bill's provisions on digital signatures and the auction of five broadband mobile communications licenses are excellent examples, as are moves to liberalize the "last mile" of communications network.

Other significant measures include a £1.7 billion (U.S. $2.7 billion) package to build Internet skills, involving IT training courses, public Internet access points, tax exemptions on loans of computers to employees, and the provision of 100,000 free computers to low-income communities. These policy initiatives supplement the market-led trend toward higher Internet penetration and usage, and put the issue of access firmly on the policy agenda.

Bridging the Divide
A common set of issues for government are of particular concern to countries with a high level of Internet use:

  • When will adoption in the population reach universal levels?
  • Can government ensure that the online wave is socially inclusive?
  • Do individuals possess the necessary IT skills?
  • Can small businesses keep pace?
  • How can government foster a thriving home market for the goods and services of the knowledge economy?
  • How should government take the lead?

These are merely the starting questions that proactive governments must ask as they formulate policy; bolder steps will be needed to ensure that the gap between information haves and have-nots does not grow wider. Policy development needs to build on initiatives already in place, and harness the powerful changes under way in the business and non-profit sectors of society.

We recommended that the U.K. government make a clear commitment to universal Internet access — from the home, school, workplace, or convenient public access point — and advance measures to promote that goal as other governments have begun to do. But access for everyone is not enough. To capture fully the benefits of the knowledge economy, users need more than availability and must move beyond passive browsing. They should become active users — participating in discussions, educating themselves, making transactions, and engaging
in commerce. At the next level, the Internet offers unprecedented opportunity for individuals to become entrepreneurs themselves — setting up Web sites and
ultimately e-businesses. Government can play a role not only in getting people online, but also in creating conditions and incentives for individuals to evolve into active users — even power users — and businesses to become power players. (See Exhibit 4, below.)

 
 
 
 
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