The nation's consumer watchdog, National Consumer Council, is today urging government, industry and regulators to act fast, to ensure all UK consumers - whatever their age, income or level of mobility - have access to the multi-media services which are developing, as broadcasting, telecoms and computing converge.
'PC boxes', in public places like libraries, hospitals and community centres, are just part of a package of NCC proposals. The Information Society: getting it right for consumers, the first consumer analysis of the information revolution, is also calling for a more effective regulatory structure, better training and education, and cheaper more user-friendly services and equipment.
Launching the report, NCC director Ruth Evans said: 'We are living through a technological revolution, with telecoms, broadcasting and computing converging fast. The information society could bring consumers untold benefits - access to information, advice and educational services locally, nationally and internationally.
'However, regulation has not kept pace with the changes. We need a more effective regulatory structure to ensure open access, full choice, fair prices and adequate consumer protection. If these technological advances are not harnessed to meet consumers' needs, people who are already disadvantaged could be further excluded.
The National Consumer Council is entering this debate now, to place consumers' needs centre-stage and to make sure the information society is inclusive rather than exclusive.'
The report argues that some lesser-known on-line services - education and advice services, and schemes helping people with disabilities - may prove to be the most important for consumers. On the other hand, high-profile, home-shopping services could contribute to the decline of local high streets, by putting rural post offices, local bank branches, travel agents and some stores out of business.
Developments should be driven by consumer need. There should be research and public debate involving consumer bodies, looking at how the new services can meet consumers' needs. Consumers and their representatives must also be involved in planning and evaluating pilot projects to ensure services are imaginative, useful and as simple-to-use as possible.
-- The Information Society: getting it right for consumers is available price £12 (inc p&p) from the National Consumer Council, 20 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1 0DH.