The founder of lastminute.com, Martha Lane Fox, has unveiled an ambitious policy to get everyone in Britain online by 2012, backed by a study that says it would save the government up to £1bn annually in customer service costs and boost the economy by more than £20bn.
Lane Fox, who is now chair of the government-created Digital Inclusion Task Force, says that getting the 10m Britons who have never used the internet to go online could generate at least £22.6bn in economic benefit - including at least £10.6bn over the lifetimes of the 1.6m children who have never used it.
In an exclusive interview with The Guardian, Lane Fox gave an example of how internet skills could improve job prospects: "I heard a story at the weekend about a casual working labourer who searches online every morning for work. If he waited until he got to the job centre all the jobs would be gone, but by being online he has been in and out of work for six months since he lost his job. And there are hundreds of stories like that, from London to Manchester to Edinburgh or wherever, all increasing the choice in their lives by having access to technology."
Now she says the UK should aim to have everyone online by 2012 - by the London Olympics - and pledged to publish interim annual targets so that progress can be measured against them.
The government would also benefit enormously, by about £900m annually, if everyone who is presently unconnected used its online services just once a month, Lane Fox noted. She is talking to government departments to try to push the benefits they could see from this - although the DITF does not have access to any funding to pay for computers for these groups.
Lane Fox, who is a non-executive director of Marks & Spencer and at Channel 4, said that she will lobby government "and anyone who will listen" to try to push along the process. But she warned that the best way to get that missing 10 million people online, of whom 40% are unemployed and 40% are over 65, was not through aggressive government projects, but through local community organisations and even soap opera storylines.
"I've been lobbying both the BBC and ITV to say one of the most dramatic things that I think we could do would be to have a proper storyline about technology in public consciousness. I'd love a storyline [about getting online] in EastEnders or Coronation Street."
Yet she doubts even her own ability to get this disenfranchised group online - despite being a woman who co-founded one of the best-known British dotcom startups in the 1990s. Instead, she insists, it will be the neighbours and friends of the non-connected who will show them its benefits.
"It works when someone who's like you shows you that there's someting in the technology for you," she said. "My blonde white middle class voice isn't going to be resonant at all with this end group of users, but if your next-door neighbour has had a great impact with technology, is or someone at the school gate says 'I saved all this money by being online', then that's when it's powerful, so building up these peer to peer networks is very important."
The analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers of the economic benefits from getting everyone online assumes that only 4.5% of the children without access to the internet now will actually benefit sufficiently from it to achieve five GCSEs graded A to C, said Mark Ambler, its director of consulting. He thinks that the analysis is "prudent" - indicating that PWC has been careful not to overstate the potential benefits to people of going online.
"It's often the people facing the toughest times who have the most to gain from what technology has to offer," Lane Fox said. "And as the internet is rapidly becoming a tool for everyday life, we should work together to make sure everyone can benefit."
The DITF has today launched its website to try to get everyone online at http://www.raceonline2012.org.
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