Internet "switchover" neglected by the nation, campaigner warns
The government, councils and charities must do more to help older people use the internet ahead of a switchover of public services to "digital by default", Tom Wright, chief executive of Age UK, told the recent national digital inclusion conference Go ON: ND2012.
In contrast, the UK's national switchover to digital TV had been supported by the government with extensive advertising campaigns and direct support for vulnerable people totalling some £500m, Wright said. "Why doesn't digital switchover of government services get even a fraction of the support of digital TV? In comparison, we are asking millions of people to use the internet, saving the government billions, using a device many have never used and many are utterly unconvinced of the benefits."
With broadband packages typically costing more than the TV licence fee, the challenge of bringing online everyone who is currently offline is actually a far greater challenge than TV switchover, but it is a challenge at which we are collectively balking, he said.
While he was pleased that Age UK has been asked by the Government Digital Service to help shape their plans for addressing this tougher end of challenge towards digital by default, far more work is needed to develop training courses, offer free or low cost broadband packages, and fund local groups to help older people directly, Wright said.
"There are enormous economic and social reasons why we should all get behind this idea of assisted digital. It needs local and face to face work, it's not something we can do remotely", he said. "How are government departments preparing for it? If the arguments are so compelling, why are we doing so little about it?"
One delegate told the conference the biggest problem faced by older people was the ongoing cost of access. "I am a silver surfer and I find it quite easy to access courses, but once people do courses and go home, how do they follow up? It is expensive. Is there any way they can get cheap PCs at home?"
There is a need for a greater number of simpler starter packages on the market, Wright said. "A lot of kit out there very sophisticated, and there is a need for simpler packages older people want to use". One such package already out there is Get Online @ Home - £149 for a Windows computer, or £99 for people receiving benefits - supported by new national digital inclusion charity Go ON UK, he said.
A new idea for how local authorities might be able to support older people and others come online was suggested by Allen Graham, chief executive of Rushcliffe Borough Council.
Older people may find some technologies or services too complex to manage, so a free or low cost technical support or breakdown service could be run by councils along the lines of the AA for your car, Graham said.
"Maybe for a small fee, someone could come once a year and defrag* your computer, make it more memory efficient and so on - we have IT staff running round our offices fixing computers, why can't they be running round the community?"
Go ON: ND2012 http://www.nd2012.co.uk/
Get Online @ Home: http://www.getonlineathome.org/
*Defragment - a way of reorganisation data stored in computer memory so it works more efficiently.