The Scottish government should provide low cost tablets to boost digital inclusion...

cheap tablet

Wouldn’t it be great if Scotland could be a world leader in digital inclusion, instead of always playing catch-up?

The Royal Society of Edinburgh recently published an interim report on Spreading the Benefits of Digital Participation. The RSE are now looking for feedback on the best ways to implement their recommendations, for inclusion in the final version of the report. The Advisory Committee for Scotland have submitted a detailed formal response to the consultation, but one issue in particular stood out for me:

It isn’t just about infrastructure, access devices are key.

The report currently focuses on the infrastructure of the internet, but not the devices used for actually accessing it.  As it points out, for over half a million people in Scotland, the infrastructure is there, but they do not have the means of accessing it. Internet access does not just mean bringing broadband to the house, the device it is accessed with needs to be viewed as part of the infrastructure. There has recently been a successful pilot project by the Wheatley Group in conjunction with Glasgow Housing Association which brought new users to the internet. This worked because it did not just provide broadband, it gave support and the means to access it too. Digital poverty can be due to lack of broadband, lack of device, or lack of knowledge. We need to tackle all of these, but to date there has been very little focus on the lack of device.

Forget expensive computers, look at tablets.

Internet access today  is done from a range of devices, but the big growth area is in tablets, bought and used primarily to access the internet, send emails and play media content wherever you are. Computers are now becoming something that one uses for work or study, essentially glorified typewriters which happen to also include the functions of a watch, calculator and tablet. In terms of digital inclusion, it is the tablet function which will support digital inclusion and the Digital Dividend.

If we consider a similar communications rollout; until 30 years ago, a basic telephone was supplied as part of your line rental. If it stopped working, BT replaced it. Including a basic tablet alongside internet connection would improve take up, particularly if, as in the case of the old BT phones, repairs were included in the cost. The issue many reluctant technology users have is a fear of not being able to sort out an [expensive] device when it goes wrong.

Teaching digital literacy is much easier if everyone has access to a similar device.

As a society, if we want to save money by moving services online, we have to make sure that the users of those services have the means to go online. It is much easier to provide support and training on going online, be it face to face, by phone or online, if everyone is using the same device. Peer to peer support is also made much simpler in this case, as everyone has the same device in front of them. Once users become confident, they can then move on to any device on the market, but providing one device for everyone to learn on removes a big barrier.

A British company has developed a £30 tablet for the Indian government (Datawind launches £30 tablet); could we try this solution closer to home?

A basic wifi enabled tablet costs around £100 on the open market, and one option would be to supply one of these at a nominal rent to under 18’s, and those below a certain income threshold. However a bolder solution with wider benefits would be for the Scottish Government to procure a large number of identical basic tablets, with a tightly defined specification so they were robust and upgradeable, and make them available to everyone in Scotland, again, at a nominal rent to under 18’s, over 65’s and those on low incomes, and at cost price to anyone else. In this case the cost should come down considerably, given the economies of scale and the opportunities it would offer to the chosen manufacturer.

There are huge savings to be had in more rural countries if full digital inclusion is achieved and services can move online. The question is whether the Scottish Government is farsighted enough to invest in all the infrastructure needed, and that means not just broadband, but devices, training and support.

Laura Alexander is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Scotland