Much has been written over recent years about a drive towards full digital inclusivity. Without a focus on connectivity for all, certain elements of society risk being left behind. It’s hard to argue with the logic behind this. A recent study by the Office for National Statistics that explores the UK’s ‘digital divide’ found that when it comes to interacting with public authorities or services alone, rising numbers rely on the internet for obtaining information, downloading forms and submitting them once complete. And that’s before the benefits connectivity brings to education, employability and other elements are considered. But what should a strategy that enables digital inclusivity look like and what sort of approaches can help its delivery?
Local authorities and other public bodies need to consider the best way of making connectivity as accessible to as many citizens as possible. In built-up, urban environments for example, where full fibre provision is already in place, it is now typical for local authorities to run public WiFi networks that ensure citizens can access superfast broadband with ease. A range of previous incentives have been available to encourage the roll-out of these networks.
In more rural areas, where the provision of superfast broadband itself is less common, this naturally becomes the first hurdle to overcome. While there are a number of centralised initiatives to ensure superfast connectivity outside of urban areas, including continued work by Openreach, this is one area where special co-operative groups, consisting of local bodies and businesses, can work to develop their own digital strategy. And this might not necessarily involve expensive cabling work either. For example, point to point communications can be used to create network coverage in rural areas by establishing a line of site connection between the nearest fibre availability and the desired location.
A Joined-Up Approach
Major connectivity projects require a joint will and a collaborative approach in order to succeed. This joined-up approach can involve a variety of models, including the possibility of public ownership of the fibre network itself. While this might stop short of some of the headline grabbing proposals of recent weeks for a UK wide, government owned free broadband network, a number of local authorities have led the way by leading projects with the help of public sector funding, such as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) backed Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund. This includes local authorities such as Nottinghamshire County Council.
Other examples of collaboration include the role of regional co-operatives, such as the Cooperative Network Infrastructure (CIN), which brings together public and private sector organisations to create and share new digital infrastructure in and around Tameside and Blackpool.
Even if public ownership of the final network is not the ultimate goal, a joined-up approach to digital full fibre infrastructure can create a number of benefits. This might be cost savings generated by coordinating major projects that involve roadworks and disruption so that duct and cable laying can be factored in at the same time – often referred to as a ‘dig-once approach’ – through to shared use of the final network in order to maximise its positive impact on the community. This might include using the fibre network for a range of ‘smart city’ initiatives, from widespread CCTV coverage to the delivery of digital telecare and telehealth services over superfast broadband, something that is becoming increasingly important as the population ages.
Ultimately, it is the provision of fibre infrastructure itself that is critical to underpinning the majority of initiatives centred on digital inclusivity. The more joined