I want to tell you about my last 24 hours on earth. I don’t mean that something terrible is going to happen to me tomorrow; what I mean is, let me tell you about the 24 hours I have just experienced and, specifically, my digital experience.
0645 – The alarm on my phone goes off. I know this is the right time because it is synchronised with the internet.
0650 – While eating Coco-Pops, I check my social media updates. Although I am also watching the BBC news, I check other news providers’ apps on a tablet.
0745 – I get in my car and listen to a playlist on Spotify, via Bluetooth from my phone to my car stereo.
0820 – Go to Costa and use their loyalty app to get points and pay using Google Pay on my phone.
0830 – Arrive at work and log into my laptop. All of my software (G Suite) is cloud based and requires an internet connection.
1000 – I leave the office to go to a meeting. This is somewhere I’ve never been to before, so before I leave, I check the address and route on Google Maps to see how long the journey will take and if there are any road works, check on available parking, and use Street View so I’ll recognise the building when I arrive. I put the address into the Waze sat-nav app which gives live updates from other users on accidents, etc. I listen to Spotify during the journey.
1100 – Arrive at the meeting and park on the street outside the office using the Ringo app to pay for parking.
1115 – I make a presentation at the meeting using cloud-based software. Although I switch my phone to silent mode, with my smart watch I can get notifications from my phone on my watch without anyone realising.
1230 – Head back to the office using Waze and Spotify.
1330 – Go to the supermarket for sandwiches, pay using Google Pay and top up my loyalty points on my Tesco app.
1430 – I have a Skype call with some Link colleagues.
1600 – Because I have location services enabled on my phone, I receive an alert from Google to tell me that there are no major incidents on the route I usually take to get home and it gives me an estimated time of arrival. And, because it’s a Monday, it’s intelligent enough to know that I take a slightly different route every Monday in order to pick up our eldest child from school band practice; although the phone doesn’t know this, it just knows that my route is different every Monday. I listen to a podcast on the BBC Radio iPlayer on my way home.
1700-2300 – There are four humans and one dog living in our house. Only the dog doesn’t use any sort of online services, although I have seen an app where you and your dog can see each other via webcam and you can give your dog treats remotely... Anyway, while our youngest child plays online games, my eldest watches Netflix and my wife and I watch BBC iPlayer. All of this media consumption is peppered with social media updates, instant messaging, web browsing, online purchasing and checking what other films that guy with the moustache has been in.
2300 – Bedtime. A quick check of my online diary for tomorrow then set my phone to act as my bedside alarm clock.
As I initially described, this is my last 24 hours on earth. Perhaps I should also mention that I live between a naval base and a large petrochemical plant, so if there was some sort of end-of-world scenario, I am toast. But then again, it is worth pointing out that in that event, it’s not a siren that would warn me of my imminent demise but more likely a warning on my phone.
What were your last 24 hours like? Probably not unlike my own. The details will be different, such as various online services, particular digital habits, distinct preferences for one company over another and so on, but essentially we will be living the same digital experience.
The most extraordinary thing is that this is now normal. I don’t even consider that I am using online services; I am just using my phone, watching TV and keeping up-to-date with stuff. Paying with my phone is just easier and quicker than fishing out my wallet, inserting a card, and typing in one of the many PIN numbers I need to remember. Using Waze for sat-nav; online service. Listening to music through Spotify; online service. The list goes on and I am sure I have missed lots of stuff out.
Now, imagine if you had to start from scratch – what digital services would you keep? Which do you need, and which would you miss the most? And what if I told you that when starting from scratch, you didn’t have a bank account? For you and me this may be a hypothetical question but for many, this is the reality of life.
It doesn’t matter if you prefer Deezer over Spotify, Netflix over Amazon Prime, Instagram over Facebook or Samsung over Apple; if you don’t have a contract then you can’t get online and access digital services.
There are some Link tenants who are in that exact situation. For one reason or another, such as age, credit rating or financial situation, they can’t get a contract to get access to the internet. They are therefore missing out on the opportunities only available to those who are online, such as convenience, cost savings, price comparisons, employability options, and avoiding the ‘poverty premium’. Not to mention many government services which are now only available online (e.g. almost everything to do with driving, council services and universal credit, to name just a few).
In two places where there is a sufficient concentration of tenants having difficulties getting online, Link has used mesh-net technology to create a self-funding internet connection into each of the tenants’ homes. Our aim was to provide voucher-based, non-contract access for anyone who needed a connection but had difficulty obtaining a contract.
In our pilot project, we brought in a new domestic broadband connection to a secure room connected to the ISP’s router. Logging into the router, we switched off the wifi function. To this router we then connected an Open Mesh access point via a CAT4 network cable. As soon as this is powered up and connected to the internet, it automatically checks for a firmware update and because it’s wired directly to a router, it’s intelligent enough to know that it will be a ‘gateway’. We also placed four other Open Mesh access points in a pattern over two floors covering the widest area possible; these only need power and will ‘talk’ to one another and the gateway access point.
Using the Open Mesh cloud management portal, Cloudtrax, we registered each of the access points using their MAC addresses and provided a location for the pilot site. Through Cloudtrax, we set up the voucher-access facility; Cloudtrax can generate any number of access vouchers based on your requirements whether that’s for one hour, one month, one year, or indefinitely and how many devices can be added using that one voucher. We generated vouchers which last for a month for a single device when activated and printed them out to sell to the tenants for £1 per voucher, which, with the number of users, comfortably covered the ISP costs, providing the low-cost, non-contract option which is not available through a traditional ISP.
The introduction of the voucher access mesh-net was incredibly successful. Not only was it reasonably cheap to buy the kit, it was also pretty easy to set it up. With a little bit of testing and giving everyone a free voucher for the first month, we ironed out some minor issues; mostly the location of the access points and the wifi coverage area.
The biggest impact on tenants was the ability to keep in touch with friends and family, do college work and save money on pay-as-you-go data plans (consider the data requirements of a teenager and the cost of PAYG data…). Tenants suddenly had the opportunity to gain all the benefits of being online at a genuinely affordable rate. It also gave us a great engagement tool, especially at the point of sale of the vouchers and with our younger tenants.
Something which should be kept in mind when we constantly hear about ‘superfast’, ‘gigabit connections’ from governments and ISPs. Clearly, investment in this area is important; as a nation we need to ensure that our digital infrastructure is world class. For you and me, even if we were starting from scratch, we would want to be patched into that superfast fibre network, but then again we can afford to connect to this network. The faster the speed of data, the more ISPs can charge, and I can afford the £40+ monthly bills for the advantage gained from the fibre networks, as long as I am in an area deemed important enough to enjoy those speeds.
However, there are people who, while living in streets embarrassed by the wealth of fibre connections, gigabit speeds, and high-quality 4G signals, still live without a connection. As we have already discovered, for any one of many reasons, they can’t get online. Being in that situation is a bit like being on a digital desert island; surrounded by a beautiful, blue digital sea but being unable to take advantage of it. This is not digital exclusion; it’s digital poverty. And you can be sure that those in digital poverty suffer from poverty in other areas as well.
What does the future hold? With the advent of Amazon Go stores and the inevitable move to similar models by other retailers, could we soon see people not just experiencing exclusion from digital spaces, but exclusion from actual spaces? Without internet access, people won’t have the required online Amazon/Tesco/Asda (et al) account without which they will not be allowed access to the physical store. And that can never be allowed to happen.
So, to return to the question that is the title of this piece; when is an internet connection not an internet connection? When it’s a lifeline.
Craig Stephenson is a digital participation officer at Link Group.