Digital inclusion in the spotlight

As more and more services move online, digital inclusion is a problem that is likely to become more pronounced for a significant section of the UK population. That’s because while the majority of Britain takes the internet for granted, there are still 11 million people lacking basic online skills.

According to Ofcom, if you are elderly, a low-earner, unemployed or live in social housing, you are less likely to be able to access the internet from your home or have the digital skills to take advantage of being online.

Thankfully, this issue has been given oxygen by ITV’s Tonight programme, who visited a project that we have been involved in with Leeds City Council to combat digital exclusion by connecting two of the city’s tower blocks to free broadband.

The partnership is part of the council’s 100% Digital Leeds programme aimed at giving every resident the access and skills to make the most out of the internet.

Leeds City Council estimates 38% of its 57,000 social housing residences don’t have permanent access to the internet. As part of the 14 month trial, we connected 160 social housing residences to free wireless broadband. It is streamed to the Grayson Crest and Clyde Grange tower blocks via radio antenna and offers 5 Mbps broadband residents to log on whenever they want.

It resulted in some absolutely brilliant feedback.

Grayson Crest resident Oliver had been searching for a job for three years without an internet connection. Four days after he was connected to 6G internet, he secured a job he found on Gumtree as a warehouse forklift driver.

He told us: “It’s the difference between being on £46 a week benefit and earning a good wage. £46 just goes in a day – I couldn’t do anything with my kids. Now I can take them swimming or to the seaside. I’ve started saving money for a better car and I can meet my friends without worrying about money.

“Without an internet connection I was searching for a job by buying newspapers or going to the library. After three years it gets disheartening – you just give up. Phone credit wasn’t cheap – if you want unlimited internet you’re talking £30 a month, so it was even difficult being able to talk to friends on social media. Now I can use my laptop at home. It’s made a big difference.”

Our partner at Leeds City Council, tenant engagement manager Ian Montgomery, said: “We know people suffer from a lower quality of life as a result of being unable to access the social, educational, financial, recreational and health benefits of being online.

“By connecting these flats to the internet and supporting people to learn how to use the technology, we are helping residents to find improved deals and save money, apply for jobs, manage finances and maintain contact with family and friends. It also helps the council to be more efficient, as residents are able to access online services to claim benefits, report issues and make payments.”

We are very proud of our work to connect more people to a better quality of life through free broadband. If you’re part of a local authority and interested in partnering with us, you can make an enquiry here.

Blackburn: Welcome to wireless

We are delighted to be able to announce that we are bringing gigabit-capable wireless broadband to Blackburn. After working closely with Blackburn with Darwen council, we can confirm that we will soon be beginning work to connect the entire town over the next 24 months.

For the vast majority of Blackburn residents, this will be the first chance to access this type of technology, which will be capable of delivering speeds of up to 6,000 Mbps by 2025.

To kick things off, we are offering 100 Mbps ultra-fast broadband at £21 – a price that is up to 50% cheaper than Virgin. Our speeds will then increase significantly year-on-year while still remaining much cheaper than major providers. It also means Blackburn will be one of the first towns in the UK where residents have the option of gigabit fibre speeds as standard.

As we have mentioned in previous blogs, the way we roll-out our network means there is usually very little disruption to residents. However, we have put carefully thought-through plans in place with the council to ensure that this continues to be the case.

There will be very little road-digging and most of our infrastructure can be installed within a day or two. We will have liaison officers on the ground during installation to make sure everything is going smoothly, and if there are any issues, residents will be able to call a helpline that will be dedicated to supporting them from the moment work begins.

We will continue to keep you updated as we get more confirmations, so keep an eye out!

What is wireless broadband?

Believe it or not, there are those of us who are old enough to remember when the internet consisted of squeaky dial-up connections, pages downloading at a rate of one per day and not being able to get online until your mum was off the phone.

Then came broadband, WiFi and speeds that increased a hundred-fold from 53 kbps (kilobits per second) to 5,300 kbps in a matter of a few years. Glorious, beautiful, life-changing internet became possible. But apart from gradual improvements in download speeds, the technology hasn’t really changed since it was introduced 20 years ago.

Well, now change has arrived, and it’s come in the form of wireless broadband that will increase the speed of your internet more than a hundred times over again, from the current average of 46.2 Mbps (megabits per second) to 6,000 Mbps by 2025. It means that in the years to come, we will start thinking of our current broadband connections in the same way as we remember dial-up: comically slow and hopelessly unable to achieve what we take for granted from our technology.

We think wireless broadband is the future

Wireless broadband has nothing to do with how you connect your devices at home; it is about how the internet reaches your home in the first place. Traditional broadband travels via high-speed fibre optic cable from national data centres to local exchanges and then by copper cable to your house. Because copper is terrible at carrying signals over any distance, providers are now in the process of switching them for fibre optic cables, resulting in ‘full fibre’ connections capable of up to 1,000 Mbps. This will take many years to complete, because it involves digging up every road to lay the new cable directly to people’s houses.

Regardless, traditional broadband travels a long way and is limited by the type of cable that carries it, even the most sophisticated fibre optic technology. With wireless broadband, the internet is sent to houses via radio signal at the speed of light, with no need for local exchanges and a far shorter distance to travel between the transmitter and receiver. It is broadcast via wireless transmitters installed on roof-tops, telecommunication masts, monopoles and street poles, creating a network that completely covers the town or city. As long as your home is within line-of-sight of one of the transmitters, you can receive wireless broadband, which is much faster and has better latency than anything that comes via cable.

The benefits of wireless broadband

The positive aspects of wireless broadband are not just limited to its speed (although the headline numbers are pretty impressive). With home phones slowly becoming a distant memory for newer generations, residents will be able to completely ditch their landlines if they want to. It also means there will be no such thing as ‘peak’ usage anymore. Currently, your home’s internet can slow down if lots of other households are online at the same time. That’s because the whole street often relies on the data from a single optical fibre split between houses. The wireless broadband connection provides every house with its own, individual link to ultra-high speed internet, unshared by any other household. It means that no matter how many houses on your street are streaming the latest 4K Ultra HD films, your home’s connection will not slow down.

One of the most exciting things about wireless broadband is that we are still at the very early stages of its development. Sure, 6,000 Mbps sounds fast now, just as 6 Mbps sounded fast in 1999, but as more and more money continues to flow into R&D for wireless technology, we will inevitably see speeds increase even further. The world is only a few years away from realising the potential of a completely new digital landscape. If you have been in any way excited, entertained or enraptured by the internet over the last 20 years, just imagine what the next couple of decades are going to bring.

The public sector must start working together to address digital inclusion

Poverty costs everyone a lot of money – from the families themselves via the poverty premium, to health and social care services, schools and housing. In fact, the impact of families living in poverty affects every part of the public sector, taking up 25% of health spending, more than a third of the housing budget and 60% of children’s social care expenditure.

A 2016 report by Heriot Watt and Loughborough Universities found that dealing with the consequences of poverty costs the public purse £78 billion a year – that’s £1,200 for every person in the UK. While it falls to the whole of society to take action to address the underlying causes, it is also the duty of each public service to manage the consequences of poverty as effectively and efficiently as possible. This means reducing its impact on families while also finding ways to reduce the impact on each service’s budget, allowing it to free valuable funds to help more people.

The allure of digitising services

The squeeze on public finances has run parallel to the boom in technology, with every organisation now searching for digital solutions to help improve the service they provide and save money at the same time. Unsurprisingly, each public service is focused on solving its own problems, but this has led to the mistaken impression that each problem is unique to them.

The NHS is continually exploring ways in which new technology can benefit its patients. Telehealth, for example, involves the use of health technology to monitor patients’ conditions remotely, meaning they are no longer required to stay in hospital and can live more independent lives at home. An NHS telehealth trial in Kent was found to reduce hospital admissions by 50% for the disease that was monitored, while home visits were also cut by 80%, resulting in savings of £1.2 million.

In a previous post, we mentioned a number of ways in which social housing providers are looking to digitise, including using artificial intelligence and big data to improve services to their tenants. Similarly, local authorities are searching for new ways to engage residents through digital services, reducing expenditure while allowing users to access adult and children’s social care services via apps, online portals and digital self-assessment forms.

The problem of digital exclusion

The focus on digital helps to cut costs and offers users the chance to engage on their own terms, but organisations are relying on the assumption that their users will have the means to access digital services. This is far less likely when dealing with families in poverty: Ofcom figures show that working-age people living in the poorest households are three times as likely to not have internet access compared to the national average. This leaves a sizeable portion of deprived service users at a further disadvantage: unable to benefit from digital services with alternative options dwindling as the channel shift picks up pace.

The point here is that digital exclusion affects every public organisation that has a duty of care to its service users. More often than not the responsibility for ensuring everyone can access online services falls to landlords or an individual department within a local authority, but this needs to change.

Instead of focusing on solving universal problems such as digital exclusion in silos, public sector organisations will achieve a far greater impact by pooling their respective resources, expertise and capabilities.

The causes of poverty cannot be addressed by a single charity, organisation, business or community, and neither can the consequences.

Why wireless beats fibre optic broadband

Most internet providers will tell you that fibre optic broadband is the future. Well, they aren’t exactly fibbing, but they are being pretty liberal with the truth. Sure, connecting your home directly to fibre optic broadband (known in the biz as ‘FTTP’) is better than using traditional copper cables: It’s faster and your speed is no longer affected by how far your home is from the internet exchange. But upgrading your broadband is like a buying a remote control aeroplane – if you really want to take off, cables kind of defeat the purpose. Here’s why:

The technology is already almost out of date

Work has only just begun to install FTTP cables across the UK, which are expected to be able to deliver home broadband at speeds of approximately 1 Gbps. That’s 1,000 Mbps – pretty fast compared to average speeds now. But in reality, broadband technology is only a few years away from being capable of delivering internet that is much, much faster.

This means that by the time all the fancy new cable has been laid to connect homes directly to fibre optic broadband (which is likely to be some point in the next decade), it will already be hopelessly unable to cope with the speeds that other technology will be capable of. And the only way to bring it up to date is spend another decade re-laying newer cable, only for the cycle to begin again.

Wireless technology does not suffer from the same problems as FTTP. The wireless transmitters that broadcast the broadband signal to your home are roughly the size of a packet of sugar and set on top of a mast, similar to mobile phone towers. The billions of pounds being invested in wireless technology means it is improving at an incredible rate, so whenever faster broadband becomes possible, it’s simply a matter of swapping out the transmitters for an updated version. No digging, no waiting, just the fastest broadband that modern technology can achieve, beamed directly to your home.

Fibre optic broadband availability is a real pain

If you don’t have FTTP yet, connecting your town means putting cables into the ground to connect every house in every street. That involves a LOT of closed roads, detours, noise, and the hassle of trying to get in and out of your house while dodging workmen, trenches, vans and equipment for months on end. It’s all the fun of your morning traffic jam, extended to the rest of your daytime, leisure time and down time. Plus, with the added bonus of a carbon footprint that would make a low-budget airline blush.

Wireless broadband uses radio transmitters set up around your town. They are installed in a day or two and can be maintained and upgraded without so much as a single closed road. It’s less hassle, a lower carbon footprint and will last a good 50 to 60 years before needing to be replaced.

Fibre optic broadband deals have no flexibility

Whichever provider you end up choosing, they have to cover the massive expense of the installation and maintenance of their new and improved FTTP network. Which means passing the costs on to you. You want ultra-fast speeds? It’ll cost you double what you’re paying now. Just upgraded your TV to 4K Ultra HD? Better be prepared to sign up to a brand new contract for faster broadband to cope with it. Want to downgrade your speed? There’s that brand new contract again.

Wireless broadband is more flexible (well, it is the way we do it here at 6G Internet). Because our installation and running costs are lower, our customers can choose to switch to any package that suits them without extending or renewing their contract. It’s simply a matter of picking what’s right for your household at that particular time. Stick or switch. Upgrade or downgrade. It’s fine by us and it’s up to you.

But here’s the most important bit: because we don’t need to spend as much money on our infrastructure to deliver higher speeds, we can deliver ultra-fast broadband without having to charge the inflated prices our FTTP competitors do. And as we improve our speeds and technology, our customers can enjoy ever faster broadband. The government wants most areas to be able to access 1 Gbps broadband by 2025. By that time, we will be providing internet that is six times faster – for the same price.

If you’re interested in joining the wireless revolution, check if it’s available in your area now.

Digitally-enabled social housing – all it takes is a connection

With technology already beginning to transform how services are delivered to social housing tenants, 6G Internet founder Tahir Mohsan was one of a number of experts invited to speak at this year’s Digital Housing Conference in Manchester.

Continue reading “Digitally-enabled social housing – all it takes is a connection”