THE BLOG

A Nation of 'Nethusiasts?

13/03/2013 13:39 GMT | Updated 12/05/2013 10:12 BST

Ofcom's new European Broadband Scorecard identifies the British as being among the continent's most enthusiastic internet users. More than 80% of the UK public is now online, benefitting from some of the cheapest internet connections in Europe. The big goal now is superfast broadband. BT reports installing new fibre cable at a rate of 100,000 households a week, while the Government is looking for a "transformation" in provision by 2015.

All of this will provide yet more possibilities for companies and public service providers to adapt how they connect with an increasingly technology-savvy population. And, as behaviour changes, we market researchers will be able to get excited very soon about various new milestones being reached - just as we did last December when our Technology Tracker found that UK smartphone ownership had reached 50%.

Amidst all this hubbub, though, it's worth pausing for a moment to remind ourselves that not everyone is changing what they are doing in quite the same way, or indeed at quite the same speed.

One phrase which seems to be used less and less these days is "the digital divide". The Oxford Dictionary describes this as the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet, and those who do not. Search for it on Google and you will struggle to find much recent material on the subject. In many quarters, the term seems to now refer to the gap between those who do or do not have superfast broadband access.

Now it may well be the case that the dictionary definition does needs to be adapted. But at the same time, it's worth reminding ourselves that, although we are moving towards the norm being the "digital consumer", living in a connected, multi-screen home, this description does not apply to everyone. At least, not yet.

Our latest Technology Tracker tells us where Britain is now. It's a changing patchwork. The most noticeable divide when looking at online behaviour used to be age. This is a bit less pronounced these days. If we look at British over 65s today, we find 85% of men in social class AB using the internet, as are 73% of AB women. In 2013, it's socio-economic background which is the big differentiator. Among DEs aged over 65, access to the internet stands at just 23% of men and 26% of women. Put simply, older people on council estates are not online. To reach them, you will need to adopt a more "traditional" method.

We can still see an "age divide" when we look at what is probably the growth story of the last couple of years - that of the smartphone. Among the powerful group in society that are the professional classes (ABs) aged 25-44, over 80% now have smartphones. Scroll across to ABs aged over 65, and we find figures of 22% for men and 12% for women. These 'silver surfers' are still going online using the "old fashioned computer". No doubt this will change quite quickly for this group of professional older people over the coming years. But among DEs over 65, be careful about assuming they will be on hand to download an App to their phone any time soon.

To keep track of what's happening out there, we all need to be as in touch as we can be with what we might call "the shape of the curve". We can see that the smartphone growth curve is very steep, for example, and we've got a good idea of where that's going. On the other hand, DVD ownership, down from 72% to 59% in a single year, is moving in the other direction.

Whether we use the term "digital divide" or not, we need to keep a very keen eye on what's happening below the surface, and how quickly (or not) each segment is changing its behaviour. In time, perhaps we will all be at the digital "promised land".

But not everybody is there quite yet, and many will need a helping hand along the way.