Will Digital Britain widen the global digital divide?

The Digital Britain report, which was finally published in full this week, reiterated the government's intention to make 2Mbps broadband available to all UK citizens by 2012.

“More than one in 10 households today cannot enjoy a 2Mbps connection,” the report reads. “We will correct this by providing universal service by 2012.”

A common reaction to this pledge is surprise that the target is so low. And compared to the reported average broadband speeds of certain countries, it certainly is low: in South Korea, for example, the current average is 25 times that, at 50Mbps. Indeed, by 2012, South Korea will have ubiquitous access to 1Gbps broadband.

But the government's 2Mbps plan is not about competing in a broadband speed competition with the highest of high-tech economies. It is about raising the minimum accessible speed, not the average.

Does this mean that the UK is in danger of being technologically outclassed by developing nations, who can ‘leapfrog’ to the latest networking technologies unencumbered by legacy infrastructure?  

In Sierra Leone, for example, unlimited mobile broadband comes free with a 12-month mobile phone contract. That means phone users don’t need to wait for their government to invest in the country’s IT infrastructure in order to access a decent speed of broadband.

But that contract costs 288,0000 Leone ($886), about four times the average household’s annual income.

According to the UN, Sierra Leone has the third most unequal distribution of income in the world, which, we can infer, translates to inequality of access to Internet communications. And as the Digital Britain report implicitly acknowledges, equality of access is more important than peak available performance.

But that realisation opens another, more daunting, can of worms.

Both the US and the UK have pledged significant investments in their national Internet infrastructure. While this may improve so-called ‘digital inclusion’ within those countries, it will also widen the global digital divide.

Of course, those governments are duty bound to further the interests of their own countries. But unless their investments are mirrored by similar schemes in developing nations, then we will be able to add limited Internet access to limited capital and limited education on the list of things that keep poor countries poor.

That raises the question: Do international organisations such as the UN have the resources, will and influence to be able to enact such investment? And if not, where will it come from?

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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