For many of us, the pandemic has provided us with even more opportunities to embed digital technology in our everyday lives. However, for millions of people up and down the country, digital exclusion is a major issue.
In this article, Leigh Hunt (City Manager, Coventry – CityFibre) explores why good connectivity is essential for society – far beyond being able to work from home or streaming Youtube content.
Digital exclusion is a major issue that the country needs to overcome as we enter a new age of working and living. Many of us almost take it for granted that there will be good connectivity to meet our growing demands, not to mention the ever-increasing plethora of connected devices.
Furthermore, over these past months, many of us will have adopted entirely new ways of doing everyday activities, such as attending meetings, completing coursework, joining exercise classes and catching up with friends and family. Likewise, we have all realised that all of these activities now have one thing in common: a digital screen.
This ‘new normal’ demonstrates exactly what we already suspected – digital technology has transformed our lives. And now, in these unprecedented times, we are utterly dependent on its ability to provide us with a socially-isolated gateway to normal life – work, the high street and entertainment, as well as the comforts of friendship and family we all need at times like these.
All of this means that having good internet access is a non-negotiable necessity. Yet for many people, especially those who rent on private land or are in social housing, gaining better connectivity can be a tricky process. Before upgrades can take place, network operators need permission from freeholders and that can sometimes slow down the rate at which upgrades can be made. Addressing this problem is one reason why CityFibre is rolling out full fibre connectivity in an increasing number of towns and cities across the UK, starting locally with Coventry, Wolverhampton and Solihull.
Internet for all
CityFibre, the UK’s third national digital infrastructure platform, aims to bring full fibre access to almost every residential and business property within our build footprint. Rolling out this network helps citizens to access speeds of up to 1 Gbps – approximately 40 times faster than current superfast broadband. But, this can only happen if we work extremely closely with freeholders and make clear what benefits full fibre services can bring to their residents and the overall value of their property.
Without the support of freeholders, we will run the risk of inevitably leaving some people behind. It is a complex matter and can sometimes be down to a number of reasons, including legal documents known as wayleaves not being in place to gain access to these premises, meaning some are, unfortunately, a victim of digital exclusion.
However, simply having access is only part of the solution – people also need to have the knowledge and skills to fully benefit from lightning-fast speeds. To address this, a wide range of organisations, including community groups, job clubs and libraries, have a part to play. They can host digital inclusion days which aim to help digitally excluded citizens get online and browse with confidence. When these are targeted in areas where fast, reliable full fibre connectivity is available, these events can really make a difference to employability, training and life-improvement opportunities.
Investing in getting previously excluded citizens online has been shown to have a host of benefits. According to the ONS, people who are online are more employable and likely to earn up to 10% more than their offline counterparts. On top of this, they’re less lonely because they’re better able to communicate with friends and family and able to save money as online shopping is approximately 13% cheaper than brick and mortar retail options.
Crucially, being online also provides vital flexibility for busy households. Having access to public services like Universal Credit, or private services like online banking, typically saves an average of 30 minutes per transaction. Not only is this better for citizens, but reducing the number of face-to-face / telephone calls being fielded helps councils focus much-needed resources elsewhere.
The elderly can benefit as well
Today, there are nearly 12m people aged 65 or over in the UK – a number that is set to increase significantly in the next decade. By 2030, more than a fifth of the population will be elderly. With so many people living longer, immense pressure is being put on social care institutions and the NHS. Age UK estimates that 40% of over-65s live with at least one long-term condition.
This often means elderly relatives are forced to relocate to a retirement home, despite most wanting to ‘age in place’ and stay in the homes they’ve created. Forced relocations are sometimes necessary to provide people with proper care but they can be hugely disruptive and upsetting for many. By enabling faster, ultra-reliable eldercare technology, full fibre connectivity can help address these problems and make ageing in place a real possibility for millions.
Smart (social) housing
Outside of this, one of the biggest benefits of full fibre is the way in which it can allow tenants to reduce energy bills by installing smart meters and other connected devices. Smart meters not only help people reduce their environmental impact, they can also help save up to £200 on energy bills, roughly 20% of the national average. And, although the 2020 deadline for smart meter rollout is likely to be pushed back, residents will find that the better deals are increasingly only available to those with smart meters installed.
The superior reliability of full fibre means devices will always be connected and, therefore, customers won’t find themselves being chased by energy companies for meter readings.
Taking the digital journey together
Tackling digital inclusion is one of the biggest challenges for 21st Century Britain. As the internet becomes ever more integral to our daily lives, it’s no longer about whether someone can browse YouTube easily, it’s an economic and healthcare necessity. Full fibre can fix the problem, platforming everything from individual residents saving time with online banking and accessing employment to helping social landlords spotting structural problems.
If we are serious about tackling social exclusion, then we must start by ensuring that everyone has good connectivity. This is an issue where we must pull together: Central and Local Government; infrastructure providers; housing providers and training providers.
The past few months have accelerated the rate of change and there is no going back. Demand for connectivity will grow exponentially and now is the time to tackle the problem head-on to ensure that the UK has a digital infrastructure that is truly world-beating and fit for the 21st Century.
About Leigh Hunt
Leigh spent over 15 years working as an e-business adviser, and became increasingly frustrated at the lack of connectivity for rural businesses.
As a founder member of the CSW Broadband project, she spent 8 years working with BDUK to bring superfast broadband to the rural parts of Warwickshire and Solihull.
In 2018 Leigh was invited to join CityFibre as their City Manager for Coventry and has now also taken on Solihull as well as her role as Team Leader for the East and West Midlands.
Leigh believes passionately that full fibre connectivity will make a real change to the ways in which we all work, learn, interact with each other and our surroundings and will bring lasting environmental benefits as we have less need to travel.
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