Evan Wienburg 24 November 2020

What the Dickens is going on with broadband in schools?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” My old English teacher, a lifelong Charles Dickens fan, would be thrilled that after many hours discussing the intricacies of a Tale of Two Cities in class, the opening lines are forever lodged in my mind, ringing true for today’s extra-ordinary times and for our schools in particular.

In our current age of technological wisdom, schools increasingly rely on digital technologies and cloud-based storage and services to plan and teach the curriculum. Bursting on the scene at the start of the 21st century, broadband breathed new life into education by opening up a world wide web of learning possibilities as well as revolutionising the day to day running of schools, helping extend and improve communications with parents and carers and streamlining processes with school contractors and suppliers.

But too many schools – particularly those outside of major urban conurbations - don’t have access to the reliable connectivity and ultrafast broadband speeds that are vital for education today.

As well as having a negative impact on organisational and administrative needs, contending with unreliable classroom connectivity, spinning wheels and buffering percentages is not only hugely time consuming and frustrating for teaching staff but disruptive as pupils’ attention quickly begins to drift.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the digital divide and educational impact for pupils who can’t access online classes and other digital resources and essential learning environments that schools and teachers provide. And as the coronavirus loads unprecedented pressure on our broadband networks with increasing numbers of people working from home, we desperately need a future-fit infrastructure able to hold its own in households where working parents are running complex digital programs and hosting bandwidth-guzzling video conferencing calls whilst children need access to a variety of devices and educational platforms.

It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity

The UK Government’s belief that it will deliver nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 is to be applauded, but the challenge remains one of acceleration and delivery. As the annual 2020 world speeds highlights, the UK is now among the slowest countries in Europe, dropping down the rankings from 34th last year to 47th out of 221 countries for average broadband speed. With the UK only just beginning to roll out fibre to the premises (FTTP) and lagging behind many other European countries, ensuring full fibre is a reality for all within five years seems a stretch.

And although it’s very welcome that the government has committed £5bn for the roll-out of FTTP broadband in the hardest to reach 20% of the UK, the unfortunate truth is that many pupils and schools will still be left with substandard connectivity. In rural areas, where infrastructure is less easy to deploy, many schools are forced to pay over the odds for substandard broadband services delivered by providers who don’t see these communities as a priority. And the broadband divide is a much more nuanced tale than one of cities vs countryside, or urban vs rural. If the city or town happens to be a historic one, jam-packed with listed buildings and narrow streets, delivering full fibre has frequently been regarded as too expensive and too challenging from a network build perspective.

Local authorities are the lynchpin

But there’s a positive twist to this story as there are a growing number of community-oriented, independent providers already working closely with local authorities and communities and investing heavily and effectively in full fibre connectivity. Privately funded, innovative providers are stepping up where the traditional market has failed and bringing full fibre, gigabit-capable infrastructure to rural areas, as well as traditionally hard-to-connect historic cities. And by providing eligible schools and community hubs passed by their new ultrafast broadband networks with free broadband for life, they are also ensuring school-age children have fast, reliable internet access to support their education.

Back to Dickens’ tale about social justice and transformation, we need to ensure that every child growing up in rural or harder-to-reach locations is afforded the same opportunities to learn and thrive as those feasting on full fibre connectivity.

And local authorities have a vital role to play to transform connectivity for their communities. With a joined-up approach working across multiple departments including digital, estates, highways and legal teams, they can break down some of the barriers and help accelerate the roll-out of ultrafast, reliable broadband. By consulting with their communities and working closely with both independent and part-public funded providers to ensure the judicious and efficient spending of government subsidies, local authorities can work closely with providers to do away with Dickensian comparisons and deliver future-proof digital connectivity for everyone.

Evan Wienburg is CEO and co-founder of Truespeed

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