I’m writing this a few hours before setting off on an odyssey around the country, highlighting the problems of rural communities which suffer from poor, or non-existent, broadband connectivity. Many of these communities are also the same areas which struggle to get mobile phone signals. The idea for Can’t Get Online Week came about due to the clamour of frustration I heard every year during the official Get Online Week from my contacts in rural communities whose locations at the end of very long copper wires effectively excludes them from many of the benefits of the modern world.
There has been movement in recent months; Government has pledged some £530 million to addressing the rural broadband divide. But, match funding rules and procurement regimes, threaten to delay the implementation of solutions, and, all the time, children are growing up and missing the opportunity to complete homework tasks online, businesses are relocating to areas with better connections, and rural areas are being depopulated, in part due to this disconnection from the 21st century. And, even when the Government-driven broadband plans are rolled out, there will still be at least 10% of communities which remain beyond reach.
This is why some communities have taken the bit between their teeth and connected themselves to the network, deploying a wide range of different technologies, including, crucially, in a number of cases, farmers digging up their own fields to lay fibre cables. Here’s an example, where Chris Conder tells how she installed fibre connectivity to her own farm in Lancashire.
In the era of people-power and localism, I often find that DIY internet-connectivity in areas the mainstream players cannot reach is still a little known phenomenon. Similarly, many people who DO enjoy good connections are often ignorant of the plight of the plight of those who don’t. Thus the twin aims of Can’t Get Online Week. I will be touring rural areas, from the New Forest, to Essex, Norfolk, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Lancashire, Cumbria, Durham, Northumberland, and Yorkshire, aiming to tell the stories of the disconnected, and what being disconnected means to their lives, as well as offering them opportunities to experience what difference being online, with decent connectivity might make.
This is a story-telling journey. I want to tell the story of disconnected England, while providing the people who live there with an all too rare platform to tell their own stories. I hope that, by the end of the week, we will have made some small difference to their lives, brought a little closer the day when they can get online, and done something to join up the connected and the disconnected.