New plans to bridge internet connectivity gap in Preston

Posted on - 4th November, 2023 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Preston Council, Preston News
Preston Council Town Hall Pic: Tony Worrall
Preston Council Town Hall Pic: Tony Worrall

Preston residents who are priced out of internet connectivity and the devices needed to get online are set to benefit from a new scheme that aims to bridge the digital divide in the city.

As part of the plans, public buildings could be used as wi-fi fibre hubs to provide very low cost – or even free – connectivity to nearby households. Meanwhile, second-hand hardware would be recycled and distributed to those currently locked out of the online life so many people take for granted – and training offered to those without the necessary knowledge to take advantage of it.

The initiatives will be delivered through the soon-to-be-formed Preston Digital Co-operative.  Preston City Council has given the go ahead to the creation of the organisation after receiving a report outlining the extent and impact of so-called “digital exclusion” on residents.

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That study, undertaken by the Community Broadband Network (CBN), found that there was a “high level of demand for support…which is likely to continue to rise”.

The report noted that the main barriers to digital access in Preston include economic disadvantages, low literacy levels, health issues and language barriers  Different generations also have differing levels of digital capability – with older age groups sometimes lacking an understanding of how to get online and even some otherwise digitally-savvy young people struggling with how to fill in online forms.

The cost-of-living crisis has brought an added dimension to the problem, with intermittent electricity supplies causing issues with online access for those in the most deprived areas, along with what is termed “data poverty”.

The authors also warn of the knock-on effects of digital exclusion on almost all aspects of health, wellbeing and quality of life.

“Digital access is essential for socialising, accessing public services, accessing education and employment, remote working and managing finances. This is particularly important for vulnerable groups such as rough sleepers and those who require mental health support in Preston. Therefore, digital poverty can push people into other forms of poverty,” the report warns.

Papers presented to a recent meeting of the full council reveal that the authority considered other ways of boosting digital inclusion – like subsidising residents’ access to existing broadband providers and providing grants for people to buy their own devices – but concluded that they could more costly and complex to administer, as well as being open to misuse.

The new co-operative will initially be funded with cash from Preston’s allocation of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), with the aim of becoming sustainable over the longer term.

The city council has agreed to spend £20,000 in each of 2023/24 and 2024/25 to procure an organisation that will be charged with establishing the Preston Digital Co-operative.  A further £160,000 will then be provided as a grant to the new organisation in order to enable it to achieve its aims.

Separately, the council will also allocate £50,000 from the UKSPF to secure basic digital skills training for those most in need of it.

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