Leeds City Council is running a set of innovative pilots to extend digital connectivity to those residents without including the provision of Wi-Fi services within tower blocks and low cost broadband to individual tenants in a range of social housing types.
Leeds has a clear ambition to be a hundred per cent digital, where everyone in the city has the opportunity to get online and to develop digital skills and confidence. To measure progress against this ambition, one of the council’s “20 for 2020 Key Indicators” is the percentage of adults in Leeds who have all five basic digital skills.
Despite the huge growth in internet usage over the past 20 years, and a significant shift towards services being provided online, there remains a sizeable proportion of the Leeds population who have not been able to experience the benefits that digital literacy and connectivity can offer.
Current government broadband policy and funding is aimed at areas where commercial roll out is not economically viable. In an urban area like Leeds over ninety per cent of premises could have access to superfast broadband, most of which has been provided by commercial investment. However this investment only goes so far and there remains core groups who do not as a matter of course have access to the benefits that broadband can bring.
For example, it is estimated that thirteen per cent of all households in Leeds do not have internet access, which equates to around 45,000 properties. Among social housing tenants, the figures are even more striking; with 38 per cent of tenants saying that they do not have any access to the internet. These people are also more likely to be disabled, unemployed, on a low income or have low literacy and numeracy levels, so they are the very people who would most benefit from being digitally included.
In order to address this gap there is a developing idea around connectivity for Social Housing which could provide a low cost broadband service to tenants. Benefits include reducing digital inclusion and improved access for Leeds City Council staff, NHS staff and others when visiting these tenants. A number of approaches are part of pilot schemes including the provision of Wi-Fi services within tower blocks. These are supported by existing providers using roof spaces to maintain commercial services. In several pilots Wi-Fi has been provided throughout the tower block as a free to use general service for residents.
A secondary pilot is looking at how low cost broadband could be provided to individual tenants in a range of housing types including Tower blocks, Smaller Multi-Occupancy buildings and Houses.
In both cases a number of success measures have been developed covering a range of anticipated benefits. These include:
- Measuring improvements in children’s attainment at school
- Looking at how effective access reduces social isolation in the elderly
- Digital skills improvements
- Reductions in unemployment and greater take-up of training opportunities
- Improvements in access to healthcare services
- Opportunities for Leeds City Council to more efficient and effective in delivering its own services to vulnerable people
A particular focus for Leeds is Health and Wellbeing, improving connectivity will lead to better health outcomes. A Smart City for health and wellbeing is one that takes an integrated approach to the use of digital technologies to increase the connectedness of people to the information and city functions that improve health and wellbeing, reduce inequalities and support a higher quality of life for all its citizens.
Connected Smart Cities can therefore provide solutions to health and care challenges at a citizen, community and whole-system level, and in turn should be applied at every level to ensure it has real impact.
The aim of this these pilots from a technical point of view is to discover how high quality digital connectivity can be delivered to tenants which compares with a FTTC-type product available from the mainstream ISPs. The target properties will be a mix of houses, low rise blocks and high rise blocks, and aim to cover a wide demographic, reflective of Leeds’ current social housing tenant mix.
The pilots are designed to run for a period of 18 months during which technical and commercial feasibility will be reviewed. Promotion of the services to tenants in selected areas and subsequent levels of take-up will also form part of the scheme.