Will the real digital divide please stand up?

June 4, 2008 at 7:55 am 1 comment

Received wisdom tells me that when someone talks about the UK’s ‘digital divide’, they’re referring to ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ – those who can, or can’t, get access to broadband internet connections. But it’s much more complicated than that.

Last month Ofcom released the results of an investigation into broadband takeup, and found that rural households are more likely to have a home broadband connection than their urban counterparts. This must reflect a greater desire to consume services online amongst rural dwellers – perhaps that’s because theiy are less well provided for with access to local physical services (shops, banks, post offices etc)  than town-dwellers. When you pass 5 bank branches on the way to work you’re less likely to need to use online banking than if your nearest branch is in the next town the other end of a once-a-week bus service. When you can pop into the local Tesco Metro near the train station on the commute home, you don’t need to order groceries online.

BBC News Online reporter Rory Cellan-Jones is in the middle of a fascinating report into broadband availability in remote parts of the UK – he’s blogging about it and giving regular updates on Twitter.

Where town-dwellers win, though, is access to higher-speed services. The BBC and other sources are reporting the results of a thinkbroadband.com survey into broadband connection speeds. The site features a speed test application which users can access to test how fast their line is working – the results published are an aggregate of their users’ real-world speeds over the first 3 months of 2008. The results show, in summary, that users in predominently urban areas get significantly faster speeds than those in mostly rural areas.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. Factors influencing the speed of a user’s connection include

  • Whether the user has acccess to a choice of higher-speed operators
  • For ADSL, the length and quality of the user’s phone line

The economics of Local Loop Unbundling (LLU) mean that an operator delivering the higher-speed ADSL2+ service is likely to concentrate on areas with more potential customers served by a single Digital Local Exchange (DLE). The more densely-populated urban areas give rise to DLEs with far more connections than urban DLEs, so we see the appearance of a choice of higher-speed operators in those areas.

Another inescapable fact is that the average length of a telephone line from the DLE to the customer is much lower in urban areas. So for a given ADSL or ADSL2+ service, the average speed attained by customers is likely to be higher. In the case of cable, the service is available almost exclusively in urban areas because of the economics of delivery. Virgin Media is starting to roll out new infrastructure to support 50MBit/s internet services – this will only serve to exaggarate the speed advantage of city dwellers.

I believe the real digital divide issue is an economic one. Initiatives to deliver public and private services onine struggle to attract users at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. This potential audience doesn’t have high-speed internet access at home for cost reasons (you need to buy a computer as well as be able to receive the service). Until this gap can be closed, we will always have digital haves and have-nots.


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BT to push ahead with Phorm Google browser sync lives!

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Digital Divide | Karen Spear's Blog  |  July 16, 2008 at 9:19 am

    […] what exactly is the digital divide? In the blog called Will the real digital divide please stand up? by Peter Bowyer (who uses the name PeeeBeee), who is actually talking about the digital divide in […]


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