As the UK enters its third lockdown in less than a year the digital divide between disadvantaged families and others has hit the headlines again. Most of the coverage has focused on the lack of devices some do not have access to. However, another issue exists – that of the unreliable, poor and – in some areas – non-existent digital infrastructure that some of our most rural communities live with.
85% of North Yorkshire is classed as sparse or super-sparse and there are areas of the county. Due to the hamlets of small villages, it has been difficult and not cost effective for the large companies to bring connectivity to these areas, meaning approximately 38,000 people have no reliable broadband and a third of the North Yorkshire geography has no 4G mobile signal. For these communities and the young people who live there being able to access the online lessons the government require schools to deliver was difficult during the first lockdown.
The Mobile Access North Yorkshire project, which is part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 5G Testbed and Trials, Rural Connected Communities programme, began its engagement in September in Coverdale. Located in the North Yorkshire Dales – we have heard from many locals about how it is an idyllic place to live and bring up a family. However, due to the lack of investment in its digital infrastructure – this year especially – as highlighted the divide that exists between places such as Coverdale and those that are located, no more than 20miles away.
Through the research interviews work carried out by our partners, Lancaster University Management School, one issue has repeatedly arisen – that students have been isolated from taking part in their educational rights.
Negotiation is normal within families – a skill that will be handy in the future. However, should a family have to negotiate who gets to access the broadband next? One residents told us ‘our connection can’t accommodate more than one person being on an online call, so we have to take turns, which is a challenge balancing work and online lessons’.
Work or education. Should it be a choice?
Another family took extreme measures. ‘My 17 year old drove to the top of my drive – half a mile away – to access a 4G signal in order to take part in Zoom lessons for his A Levels’.
Being resilient is a Yorkshire way but this should not be happening. The North Yorkshire Rural Commission stated in June that ‘broadband and mobile technology need to be seen in exactly the same way as other essential utilities, like water and electricity. As a humanitarian right, to support mental and physical health, education and jobs’.
For this latest lockdown, the Department for Education has announced that students who cannot access the internet may be eligible to attend school. However, there will be times over the next few months – when schools open again – that students will potentially have to isolate.
How will a child with poor digital infrastructure cope then and what impact will it have on their future?
Schools have put in place strategies to ensure with those students who lack digital access can still take part. One local school said ‘we send workpacks from school to those who don’t have broadband access. This is printed hard copies of lessons and resources, allowing students to make progress’. However, this isn’t with its downfall, the school stated ‘it takes longer to mark this work as it has to be sent back to school and then distributed to teachers’. This means students are not getting feedback as quickly as others. Equally, being unable to attend the online classes’ means students are missing out on the social interaction that they offer.
Education is a right for every individual. The impact of the weeks or months missed by lockdown or mandatory isolation is likely to be felt for years to come.
The issue of connectivity has certainly been highlighted this year. However, it, also, offers an opportunity to drive things forward. It is essential that solutions are found quickly, safely yet are cost effective to those who live within these communities.
The MANY project continues to engage with the community in Coverdale listening to how a lack of connectivity affects day-to-day lives. It hopes to be a position to go live with its network in April 2021 – once initial engagement with the community is completed – using a mixture of fibre and wireless. This hybrid of technology allows the project to explore how 5G – the latest technology – is a potential solution to reaching even the most isolated rural communities by connecting both the outside and in the home.
Trialling and understanding this model offers hope for other rural communities, as a key aim of the project is to be able to scale up the solution for other areas. Ensuring that the future of our rural communities are secure in their needs, wants and requirements via 5G.