Digital inclusion is important for social equality to ensure access to the many benefits the Internet offers. These benefits include access to support services and information, cheaper goods, and online communities; and as novel services continue to become available the consequences of exclusion will continue to grow. The digitally excluded are commonly perceived to be the elderly, socially excluded, and/or economically deprived, however, conventional wisdom also holds that an urban-rural digital divide exists, an assertion supported by the geography of telecommunications services in Great Britain and the manifestation of distinctive socio-economic components. At the societal level, aside from issues of social justice and equality, the consequences of digital exclusion are economically inefficient offline access to services and a reduction in participation in the Digital Economy (DE).
The UK Government’s current efforts to address digital inclusion have focused primarily on allocation of £530m to subsidise industry deployment of both ‘superfast’ broadband to urban areas and ‘standard’ broadband to more remote locations. This approach is predicated on a desire to support novel DE services through improvements in speed for urban users while simultaneously ensuring basic levels of access for all (e.g. NHS online, jobseekers, vehicle tax online - websites which do not require high capacity broadband).
Crucially, from a rural perspective, this approach only goes part-way to addressing infrastructural barriers and it does not address economic ones. Pricing is left to the market and commercially ‘hard to reach’ areas are left with poor access (speed) to broadband or no broadband service. Simultaneously the cost to individual households of accessing a reliable broadband service is heightened, particularly where the alternatives such as satellite broadband packages require installation costs. Clearly, leaving connectivity for all to be governed by market economics is a major impediment to achieving the full benefits of a DE, and there are compelling arguments in favour of basic Internet access being made freely available to all.
The Rural PAWS research project seeks to explore technology to enable near-to-free Internet connectivity services, providing greater opportunities of access, enabling digital inclusion and, in turn supporting the UK Government's 'Digital by Default' programme with its associated cost savings and service improvements. It works by making use of the available unused/unallocated capacity in broadband networks by offering a lower quality (very low cost) service compared to the standard Internet services offered to a paid user. The service will be evaluated from the perspective of the experiences of users and in terms of commercial viability (for network operators).
Rural PAWS will address the need for better understanding of the economics of service provision and Internet demographics in rural areas for greater digital inclusion of communities as a part of the DE. The project is being jointly performed with the Horizon Digital Economy hub and University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory who are conducting the urban case study.