Ofcom is prematurely claiming victory in closing the digital divide today, as its annual review of communications markets reveals that for the first time broadband uptake by country folk has overtaken that of urbanites.
Taking the UK as a whole, 59 per cent of rural households are now hooked up, compared to 57 per cent in the cities.
The watchdog's press release self-importantly burbles: "The rapid rollout of broadband services across the country has meant that most parts of the UK now have access to this service and today's report marks the end of the so-called divide."
Ofcom might be a little too smug, however, on several counts. There's large variance in uptake depending on which part of the country you're in. It's surely little surprise that the majority of country households in the south east's stockbroker belt have broadband. In rural Scotland, meanwhile, Ofcom concedes that it still just doesn't know how many households are in a BT "not spot" without the possibility of broadband access.
It happily notes there are 5,000 pages of Gaelic on Wikipedia, though. Which is nice.
When politicos, charities and other interested groups talk about the digital divide, they are not only referring to the inability of rural landowners to track their investment portfolio online - the divide is social as well as geographic. Indeed, Ofcom's own data shows the chaps down at Southwark Bridge Road are a little bullish in declaring the digital divide dead and giving themselves a lovely pat on the back:
The chart above, taken from the report accompanying the aforementioned press release, shows that working class people still lag way behind affluent "ABC1s" for internet access nationwide. The socioeconomic split on Ofcom's similar chart for broadband only is even wider, suggesting many of the poorest are stuck in the internet's dial-up slow lane.
Ofcom may claim it has the regional divide beaten for now, but the issue is certain to rear its ugly head again soon. The foot-dragging that characterised BT's rollout of ADSL to rural exchanges is sure to emerge once more as the UK's lack of a modern fibre to the premises telecoms infrastructure begins to bite.
The former public monopoly is already known to favour a piecemeal approach to fibre, naturally preferring to invest in high density areas where it can flog plenty of lines and services over the top. It's also lobbying hard for regulators to loosen its Universal Service Obligation.
Ofcom and the government have yet to suggest any solution to the small return on investment rural fibre would attract beyond incoherent mumblings about the possibility of a patchwork of wireless services for low density areas... or something.
In the meantime, the UK falls further behind rival better connected nations at a time of huge economic uncertainty, when competition for outside investment will only intensify.
The full report is here. ®