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Digital Inclusion in Rural Areas

Written by Mark Bennett, Digital Inclusion Manager at NI Direct Digital Inclusion Unit

Money, entertainment, employment, government online services, education, health – if people are connected, capable and online, they can do it all easier and faster! And so our discussion started with a focus on how these important points cam become frustrations in the rural parts of Northern Ireland that remain offline and hard to reach.

These are of course not the sole issues facing our rural communities which seek to take advantage of web access – there is also a real risk of isolating them from critical online government services such as those available on nidirect.gov.uk, and creating a digital disadvantage for people with no internet at home or no access to a computer. There are many different root causes of the issue – for some, it’s because they live in an area still without or with poor broadband, others may lack devices at home, while some just haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to use them.

Whatever the cause, to address some of these issues, the Department of Finance Go ON NI programme provides a digital skills service for Northern Ireland citizens, physical access to use digital channels, signposting to internet training and awareness sessions, and provides one-to-one training where required. Various projects are active throughout the year across all sectors, with support from LibrariesNI, Supporting Communities and Business in the Community, and mainly supporting the development of online skills and confidence, but also tackling motivations and security. The programme has resulted in a 14% rise in the number of NI citizens using the internet over the last four years to a new high of 81%.

Inevitably the topics of broadband availability, roll-out and speed were raised – 95% of premises in NI have access to 1.5mbps broadband or above. (This figure is 77% if superfast broadband is considered, and in stark contrast the superfast figure drops to 40% for rural areas in NI.) The group agreed that this requires infrastructure improvements, but also a certain amount of human capacity building and digital up skilling as well. Uptake of grants and subsidies in rural areas for broadband and satellite technology provision has been low, so this is only part of the solution.

Investments have indeed been made to extend the broadband infrastructure to remote communities here, but that has still left some without it– which is why the Prime Minister announced the broadband Universal Service Obligation – giving everyone the right to request a fast, affordable broadband connection of a minimum specified speed – initially set to 10mbps – up to a reasonable cost threshold. Interesting conversations followed considering questions such as “is 10mbps a fair minimum speed?” and “Which technologies should be used?”.

Whilst the discussions only touched the tip of the iceberg, we all agreed that we cannot allow a digital gap to grow in rural areas as it will further deepen digital AND social divides within the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. We have to work together to make sure that no one is left behind and so we were left to reflect on a few questions:

  • How can we make it easier for support and funding with digital skills and reaching those who are offline?
  • How should Government help tackle the issue?
  • How can we foster and promote innovation within digital inclusion?
  • How do we support greater collaboration and joint working across organisations and sectors here?
  • One option that would make an impact is allow communities to own their own digital infrastructure and connect for free to a POP. The way to enable this is encourage communities to establish a CIC that will own this new digital infrastructure (aka ultra fast fibre). I would deploy Gb ethernet capability for rural communities. This same infrastructure (& the same CIC) can also be used to deliver smart energy grids too. The key here is having an alignment of need and an ownership model that delivers that need.

  • Mark Read

    In Cornwall we have a very active ‘Digital Champions’ programme based on the notion that in a very rual area, on our own (public sector) we don’t have the resource to be able to get to those that we need to in order to give them the encouragement, skills, access etc to embrace the digital world. Our concept is to seek a cohort of community volunteers for whom we provide the tools and skills and they act as the digital advocates in their communities. We’ve started well, are engaging with partners to take this forwards, have over 50 ‘champions’ across Cornwall who are on target to have engaged with 1500 people by the end of the year. The early results are positive!

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