Access to the digital
The world has long been difficult for rural and disadvantaged urban communities who are distanced, economically, socially and educationally due to their inability to access adequate broadband services. The COVID19 pandemic further broadened the “digital divide.” Almost overnight, vulnerable populations were cut off from access to government services, healthcare, education and retail resources, disproportionately affecting people living in rural or deprived suburbs.
The latest figures from Thinkbroadband (July 2022) show that gigabit-capable broadband connectivity is now available to close to 70% of UK premises – so the national programmes from telcos supported by government funding (Superfast, LFFN, Gigabit Programmes) are driving much better coverage, but getting fibre in the ground is only part of the process – making sure all citizens can access education, health, employment and other vital services digitally is a much bigger challenge.
As governments start to allocate funds from their recovery plans to level-up and to bridge the digital divide, it’s increasingly clear that we must go even further to ensure digital inclusion. Beyond giving citizens access to high-speed broadband internet services and devices, we must be sure they understand the benefits, have the skills to use the internet and have access to local content, along with the knowledge of how to stay secure and protect online data.
A public policy priority
Achieving digital inclusion is a fundamental enabler for society, making it a strategic public policy priority. AWTG has been using a wide range of wireless technologies in support of local government, and helping them through the digital inclusion framework, a comprehensive approach comprising five key elements:
Affordable access: First and foremost, provide equal and affordable access to quality broadband – not just to business centres or other areas with deep pockets, but throughout the community, including lower-income and rural areas. Enhance results with adapted regulation, as well as public-private partnerships with non-traditional players such as municipal networks and telcos, along with shared and neutral host networks.
To achieve this consider not only fibre but also Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), which can also provide near gigabit speed using 5G technology. Such solutions provide fast, reliable, internet access with a lower cost of deployment than fibre for some semi-rural or rural areas and can be deployed much faster.
Tools and training: Provide the necessary tools and training to make services highly usable. This means being suitable for the digital education levels of the average user, and able to generate actionable design feedback through analytics, demographics, citizen segmentation and needs analysis.
Relevance and incentives: Accelerate adoption of services relevant to the user. Services for the elderly would include telecare, wellness programmes, home visits, wearable devices, deployment of AI to detect and trigger alarms and dispatches for events such as falls.
Scalability: Initiatives often start as pilot projects, so give careful consideration to enabling large-scale adoption. Factors may include policy and regulation including new procurement models such as public-private-partnerships and long-term access to spectrum.
Empowerment: Fully empower users by creating communities of interest with a voice when policy decisions are made. Co-design services in collaborative service delivery models.
AWTG has been helping government for over a decade building the country’s first unlimited free-of-charge public access Wi-Fi mesh network in Barnsley in 2011. Since then it has built similar networks in Kingston Upon Thames, seven areas in central London and Dundee.
With new insights and funding triggered by the pandemic, now more than ever is the time to enhance digital access to ensure no one is left behind.
AWTG is a technology innovator and network systems integrator with a strong track record in delivering operationally transformative solutions that connect communities, transform organisations, and build economic and social value. Our team operates across the UK, Europe and the Middle East.
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