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Tony Blair launches digital divide 'challenge'

Plan will award as much as $18.8 million to the first local authority and partners to offer universal Net access to public services.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has launched an election manifesto "action plan" aimed at bridging the United Kingdom's digital divide and providing universal broadband access for citizens.

The three-year plan was launched at Downing Street on Friday by Blair, Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt and IT industry body Intellect.

Special report examines
the key elements of
any policy agenda aimed
at building a national
broadband network.

One of the pledges is for a "digital challenge" prize of up to about $18.8 million (10 million pounds) for the first local authority and its partners able to demonstrate universal online access to local public services.

Education is a key plank of the plan, and the government says it will give all students the chance to access the Internet at home through a low-cost national laptop- and PC-leasing scheme.

The government has also promised to boost the security and safety of the Internet with a new police agency that will target online pedophiles along with plans to work with the banking industry on online authentication technologies.

Telecommunications regulator Ofcom will be asked to come up with a strategy to boost broadband adoption among disadvantaged sections of the population. Targets have also been set to stimulate broadband content, particularly in the public sector.

Hewitt said the government is aiming to make the United Kingdom the first nation to close the so-called "digital divide."

"We aim to make the U.K. a world leader in digital excellence with public services that are even more responsive, personalized and efficient than the leading companies that have successfully deployed the Internet to serve their customers," she said.

John Higgins, director general of Intellect, told the plan is backed by the U.K. IT industry.

"The IT industry will be involved in education schemes, and it will do planning, project management and the strategy. In 2008, we will take another look, and I hope what is left to do then will be pretty small," he said.

Click here for a PDF of the strategy paper.

Andy McCue of reported from London.