By Marjorie Delwarde | 20 Jan 2006
The UK digital divide in broadband uptake is widening, according to recent research carried out by research company Point Topic.
In terms of broadband density, London and the Home Counties perform best with 25 (both DSL and cable) broadband lines per 100 people in Wandsworth, south London, to 20 in South Buckinghamshire.
At the other end of the spectrum are the rural areas of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales as well as West Somerset, with figures as low as 6.3 lines per 100 in Dumfries and Galloway and 4.9 for Eilean Siar, aka the Western Isles.
South Wales, which in previous Point Topic research was reported as doing well in household broadband take-up, now shows signs of a less rosy future. Demand for DSL has now overtaken cable broadband, which in the past propelled the region to a leading position in broadband density.
Despite broadband availability, some rural areas still fail to adopt broadband, highlighting lack of interest and social background as significant factors in the deepening of the broadband digital divide.
John Wilson, member of the Wales Broadband Stakeholder Group, comments on the map used to indicate take-up, saying Wales appears as a big white desert. But he questions whether it is a realistic indication of Welsh internet access. "Maybe people are accessing the internet through other means, like mobile."
He adds: “BT may have enabled its exchanges, but people living six miles away from the exchange are unlikely to get broadband access. Companies provide broadband access where it is commercially viable.”
Broadband Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government initiative to drive broadband take-up, was not available for comment at the time of publishing.
Wilson believes the Welsh government is not to be blamed for the slow broadband uptake in the region. “The Welsh government has not only focused on infrastructure but has also developed a pro-active marketing strategy to educate and inform people about the benefits of broadband and generate take-up,” he says. “In fact, its spending has been twenty times higher per capita than the government in London."
Rhodri Williams, Ofcom Wales, agrees that efforts are being made by the Welsh Assembly to promote broadband and also the roll-out availability to those areas where there isn’t current availability and predicts they are going to have an impact.
He says: “I don’t think that the slight shortfall in the broadband uptake in Wales is particularly worrying. Cable penetration has been high in those areas where cable is available. DSL is becoming more and more popular so we can expect to catch up with the UK average in the near future.”
Williams also expects that the introduction of alternative suppliers will lead to an increasingly competitive market and cut down prices, making broadband more desirable.
He explains: “One of the issues is that people need to see what exactly it is going to be used for. There was a tendency for people in the past to see only faster internet access but that’s not a compelling proposition for customers. As we see more services developed especially for the broadband platform, such as VoIP services, broadband uptake will increase.”
Wilson suggests that lack of relevant content may account for the digital divide in Wales, questioning the presence of valid content online for Welsh speakers, ethnic minorities and people living in rural areas.
“In rural areas, market towns are vibrant places, where people meet, conduct their business and communicate. The challenge is to recreate this community experience online. There is a need for the government policy to address the content. Infrastructure is just a means to an end to enable people to communicate with each other.”
Use of broadband at work or school might make people realise they need it at home too. However broadband affordability might be an issue. Although prices have decreased, Wilson remarks that most of Wales falls into the European Objective 1 classification, in need of regeneration, and the digital divide in Wales may be a socio-economic issue too.
Williams comments: “As a predominantly rural area and a poorer area of the UK, I think it’s only natural that we are a couple of percentage points behind the UK average.
He adds: “We still don’t have universal roll-out of DSL, but DSL is one of theses technologies that clearly started in metropolitan areas. If you look at Cardiff, there is a good take-up of broadband services. We are clearly moving in the right direction.”