n the light of the government’s Digital Britain report, Teresa Robbins, director of Isrighthere, looks at how housing providers and local authorities should address the delivery of high-speed broadband to tenants and citizens.
Across the country, projects to install high-speed broadband into housing blocks and developments have ground to a halt. Councils have instead been allocating funds to other projects, citing concerns with the costs of the new networks. This short sightedness risks exacerbating the UK’s digital divide.
The Digital Britain report promised universal access to broadband by 2012 with a minimum speed of 2Mb. A key part of making this happen was through projects to provide high-speed broadband in housing blocks. With the UK already well behind the rest of the Western world in terms of broadband access, this was a key part of the report to ensure that those living in social housing did not fall even further behind.
However, councils across the country have removed their funding for these projects, redirecting the money to other areas now that the media attention has moved on. Other projects to provide internet access in community centres and libraries have stalled for the same reasons. In some cases, the councillors who should be helping to provide internet access are instead ensuring that their own needs are fully met with laptops and smart phones. Schools are also facing problems with their ICT budget. Considering all these factors, it is more important than ever that internet access is provided to the home as originally promised by many councils and local authorities.
People today who have access to the internet are better informed, have access to cheaper services, such as discounts for buying online, access to shop ‘bots’ and comparison sites, and searching and applying for jobs online. In short, the people who cannot afford to have access to the internet are in many cases precisely the people who would benefit the most from doing so.
Shadow chancellor George Osborne said recently that a Conservative government would deliver speeds of 100 Mbps to the ‘majority’ of homes by 2017. While it would be easy to dismiss this as over-optimistic noise in advance of the general election, moving forward with projects to deliver broadband to housing blocks would help make this a reality. Many of the proposed projects that have stalled involved high-speed fibre broadband to the building along with IPTV and phone services. Some of these will have also included access to local information, a way for the building owners to keep in touch with the tenants and for the tenants to report faults and share concerns. Not only does this create a way for the community to interact and post on online message boards, but it provides the type of internet access that will have real benefits.
A lack of quality and cost-effective telecom services also discourages businesses from setting up in an area; businesses now list telecoms facilities as a deciding factor when choosing a location. A lack of enterprise and business results in fewer jobs available for that area which in turn affects the local community.
Of course, it would be foolish to dismiss the cost of these projects, which are often in older buildings that require more work than usual to install the infrastructure, but this assumes that the council or local authority has to foot the complete bill, which is far from the case. Previous projects have been run in conjunction with commercial organisations to reduce the financial and operational responsibility. Working with a commercial partner has advantages for both sides, including sharing the project risk.
The commercial company can use the system to sell its own services, which in turn allows the council to promote the service to its tenants with many more features such as on-demand film and TV as well as the basic broadband, IPTV and phone line package. The commercial organisation will also provide ongoing support and maintenance.
Councils need to wake up and put addressing the digital divide back at the top of their agenda or risk falling even further behind. By partnering with commercial organisations, rather than embarking on further research or other delaying tactics, the cost aspect can be easily addressed and hopefully this will bring these important projects back to life.
Teresa Robbins is director of Isrighthere.