It is widely accepted that through community networking, we help individuals to connect with their communities, maximising their own potential and fuelling regeneration. Facilitating this is therefore often acknowledged as one of the duties of a social housing provider. Any digital inclusion strategy has to explore how the internet can be used to enhance community networking and indeed should consider the already proven methods in operation.
The ability to provide free internet into the home is seen by many housing providers as the ideal. Drawing on a decade of experience, from the earliest days of community broadband and wi-fi, Montal and CommunityUK have formed a partnership to install wireless broadband across communities which allows free broadband connectivity to tenants, often in the most diﬃcult of circumstances.
No contract, no line rental
Key features of the service include a free 4Mb broadband service, with no contract, no line rental and no need for a TV or satellite connection. User support is also provided free via the telephone or an online help desk. The 4Mb service, which has an unlimited data allowance, is perfectly adequate for everyday web activities such as surfing, email, social networking and online learning; if tenants want a higher level of performance, then dependant on location, varying faster levels of bandwidth can be bought at competitive fixed rates, again without a connection fee or contract.
The funding for the wi-fi infrastructure underpinning the service is increasingly being justified by the social return on investment (SROI). For a current and ‘real world’ valuation, we can look at the free wi-fi network element of the pilot project, being carried out by Castle Vale Community Housing Association in Birmingham. Since the project started in January 2014, with the aim of providing free wi-fi broadband across around 500 homes, 380 residents now use the service, with around 15 new users joining each week.
Working on an average of two potential users per home, 40 per cent of people in the pilot area are already using the network. If growth continues at the current rate, 100 per cent of the possible users could be online by March next year. A more realistic figure would be a 50 per cent take-up, with a potential increase to 75 per cent over three years, which is an impressive statistic.
For an internet-connected individual in the UK (outside London), the average ‘social value’ is £2,875 per year per person online (source: Global Value Exchange), so the social value of the pilot for the next 12 months on current users alone would be over £1 million.
Working on the basis of a cost of £60 per household for the creation of the network (i.e. £30,000), the SROI over the same period is around £35 for every £1 spent.
This ratio improves as more homes are included in the project. Add to this the facts that, first, the cost to the housing provider is a single, one-off capital cost (i.e. there are no on-going costs and can be depreciated and at least partially recovered through tax relief) and, secondly, that the business model actually facilitates the repayment of this investment over an agreed period, and the SROI is even higher.
Leading across Europe
There are a number of major community wi-fi projects being planned and it is expected that within 12 months this will lead to the UK having a number of the largest wide-area wi-fi networks in Europe. If this is the case, then Community wi-fi will have been proven and will need to be seriously considered within all digital inclusion strategies.
And it’s not just about the connectivity. Wi-fi networks are the platform for the delivery of the far reaching ‘going all inclusive’ digital inclusion programme that CommunityUK has developed and are delivered with partners such as Montal along with all wi-fi networks.
Going all inclusive
Providing hyper-local community web portals that deliver content and functionality for housing providers to their tenants, together with a range of initiatives covering education and training, skills and employability, e-health and more, the ‘going all inclusive’ programme ensures that the community not only gets high-quality, affordable internet access but also the knowledge, tools and support they need to get the very best out of it.
This approach to delivering real and sustainable digital inclusion is already making headway in projects around the UK and is receiving considerable attention, with CommunityUK being nominated for the ‘best digital inclusion product or service’ in this year’s Digital Leaders 100 awards as well as the Government Digital Service and Digital Birmingham both citing the Castle Vale project as an exemplar of real digital living.
Colin Sales is managing director of Montal.