Europe's digital divide

Access to fast, reliable web services can have a positive impact on society and the economy. But the digital divide still exists says Ian Clark.

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Entrenching the divide?

Despite the intention to bring superfast broadband to 90% of the population, there is a possibility that this policy will actually entrench the divide rather than close it. Communities in wealthy areas will find themselves with access to the superfast broadband infrastructure the government desires, but those who would (in the words of the report) "enjoy the greatest uplift in their quality of life "would find that enhanced broadband provision would still lie beyond their reach.

Data collected by the UK's Office of National Statistics (ONS) underlines that there is more to addressing the digital divide than simply improving broadband access across the country, the solution has to be much more complex than that. For example, in the most recent Internet Access - Households and Individuals report, there were a variety of reasons given for a lack of household Internet access. For example, the report revealed that 54% of those surveyed did not have a connection because they felt they "did not need it". Furthermore, 15% claimed that equipment costs were too high, 14%claimed access costs were too high and 22% indicated a lack of skills was the main reason for not having access at home (in 2008 14% claimed a lack of skills was an issue - which suggests a worrying trend).

Whilst there is an obvious need to ensure that everyone has access to the internet (indeed, perhaps we should follow Finland's lead?), simply rolling out superfast broadband and ensuring its availability to the vast majority is not the answer. For many, cost is still prohibitive and there is clearly pressing need to address the lack of skills. A properly resourced, professionally run library service can and should play a key role in this. However, as we are all too aware, an increasing number of libraries are being closed or handed to local communities to run voluntarily. Without addressing skills and costs, there is little hope of addressing the extent of the digital divide.

Although it is certainly encouraging that the digital divide is being treated seriously as an issue, current developments suggest that the divide will become more complex and entrenched for the foreseeable future. The divide within the EU between the strongest and the poorest economies is clearly at risk of growing, somewhat undermining the notion of a unified EU. From the UK perspective, not only will there be a divide across nations, there is a strong likelihood of entrenchment and potential widening of the digital divide within the UK. Given that the benefits are most keenly felt by those who would experience the "greatest uplift in their quality of life", these developments suggest growing divisions within our society and across the EU. In the midst of economic crisis, it is more important than ever to ensure that steps are taken to close the digital divide. The signs at the moment are that a narrowing of the divide is as far away as ever.

Ian Clark is co-founder of Voices for the Library and currently a Library Systems Officer at Canterbury Christ Church University, prior to that, he gained extensive experience in the commercial sector. Ian has been invited to present at a number of events on communicating beyond the library sector and writes on a range of information issues at

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