Bridging the digital divide

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Coastline ICT manager Beth Lawton

Thousands of low income families trapped in the downward spiral of “IT poverty” face a bleak future as the 21st century leaves them behind, a prominent social housing group is warning.

As the digital revolution gathers pace, with ever-increasing numbers of people gaining online access, significant pockets of the population – low paid and often living in social housing – remain untouched by the changes, according to Camborne-based Coastline Housing.

It says urgent action is needed to ensure victims of the ‘Digital Divide,’ which separates the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots’ of the IT world, do not become a permanent technological underclass.

The evidence indicates that many of the worst hit victims live in remote rural areas where they not only miss out on the benefits of computer access, but also face the added difficulties of social isolation.

The ‘have nots’ are further disadvantaged by not being able to access cheap online deals for banking, utilities, and essential purchases.

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Having recognised the problem, Coastline briefed two consultants, Cosmic and CoActive, using a £20k grant from the Social Enterprise Investment Fund, to identify the barriers to online access, and determine what other rural communities are doing to bring the worldwide web within reach for those on lower incomes.

Beth Lawton, Coastline’s head of ICT, who is championing the move to overcome digital exclusion, said: “The results came back that only around 36% of our tenants had internet access, well below the national average of 70%.”

Although tenants named cost as the main reason, it emerged that three factors combined affected the figures – cost, education, and perceived lack of need.

As a result of the consultation the association has started putting together a plan to tackle the problem, involving participation from all the major players in Cornwall – from landlords and local authorities to community organisations.

Coastline also hopes to tap into the social side of a European fund being made available to improve broadband links in Cornwall.

And it is already leading from the front, by providing eight PCs to residents’ associations across its stock. Coastline is also a Home Access partner, a Government scheme to get underprivileged families online. The Company has also opened two internet cafes in two of its sheltered housing schemes, and plans to equip all of its sheltered housing schemes with internet access by the end of 2010.

Coastline is hoping to work in partnership with other organisations to access European funding in order to provide many more computers which would be available at village halls and internet cafes across the Duchy.