What happens when the post office loses its internet connection?

I think this is a poignant story. Bellingham Post Office in Northumberland had its broadband connection cut off for 10 days over the Christmas period; you can read about it here. As Wendy Telfer, the post mistress, recounted to BBC Radio 4 in the clip below, this resulted in her having to help people who couldn’t access their pensions out of her own pocket.

There are lots of issues surrounding this incident, but a key point which this has highlighted for me is how difficulties like this one, which could have been helped by outside intervention, can still go unnoticed by the wider world, even in the age of social media. A temporary solution, like a WiBE (http://www.wiberouter.com) could probably have got the post office back online in an instant, but the proprietors obviously didn’t know this, and no one with the kind of knowledge that could have helped was aware of the issue until it was too late.

I think this is a salutary example for those still unconvinced about the benefits of social media. One distressed tweet from the post office could have set a process in motion that would have solved the problem. But who is helping the people who don’t know about these possibilities? Should the local authorities not have a role in keeping their ear to the ground for issues like this and sourcing assistance? And what about the Post Office? Does it not have contingency plans for such difficulties?

And this also highlights the how many people, particular in rural areas, still think the only potential solution to their broadband problems is to turn to the provider that caused them in the first place.

There is so much more work to be done in opening people’s eyes to the possibilities offered by social media in accessing sources of advice and assistance, and in getting properly independent advice about technology and broadband issues. With so many vulnerable people, particularly in rural communities, dependent on services offered by post offices we cannot afford for them to be at the mercy of an ancient copper line.

Interesting use of Linkedin

Here’s a quick social media case study.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been in Lincolnshire, delivering Broadband for Business Workshops as part of the work I am doing with CDI Alliance for Lincolnshire County Council via their OnLincolnshire programme.

I happened to have a conversation with someone unconnected with the workshops, who asked me what I was doing in the area. When I explained, he told me that he had an interesting use for Linkedin. He had bought a cheap boat in Turkey, intending to do it up for use for mini-cruises and sail it to be based in Spain. However, there had been a number of unforeseen financial obstacles to moving the boat, which had led him to keep it based in Turkey. He had employed a local captain and set about advertising it for group cruises. However, he had found the cost of newspaper and magazine advertising to be prohibitive.

But, he had hit upon an unusual way of recruiting people for the mini-cruises. He had trawled special interest groups on Linkedin and contacted people to find if they were interested in running mini-cruises for people with common interests. He had found a number of people willing to do so, and his model is to pay their air fare to Turkey and give them a free place on the boat in return for them recruiting groups who pay their way. Apparently, yoga cruises are particularly popular. The leader gets a free holiday, and the boat owner gets paying customers recruited for him.

I thought this was a particularly interesting use of social media.


A Story of New Technology, Immediacy and the Olympics

This is a story of modern technology.

Last Wednesday, I spent a very enjoyable day travelling round parts of Lincolnshire on a mobile library, encouraging people to get involved in the campaign for better broadband in their area, and showing them some of the things they might do with a better connection.

I then drove home through rural Lincolnshire, heading for the A1. I was driving a borrowed car, which doesn’t have a DAB radio, and, as I’ve had years of listening to Radio 5 Live on various forms of digital platforms, I find medium wave pretty hard on the ear these days, so I was listening to the Olympics coverage via internet radio on my iPad, plugged into the car radio. As most of the areas I was driving through in the early part of the journey were pretty rural, the signal kept dropping out, and there was lots of buffering. As I got onto the A1, Bradley Wiggins’s attempt at a gold medal began. Not long after this, I pulled into a service station, but, the cycle race was reaching its climax, so I sat in the car for about 10 minutes until it was confirmed that Bradley Wiggins had, indeed, achieved his gold medal. Then, just as I was about to switch the radio off and head into the service station, the presenter said “it’s 10 past 4”. I looked at the clock on the car dashboard and saw that it read 4:25. The buffering had actually resulted in a 15-minute delay in the coverage I was listening to, and I reflected on the irony that I had sat there gripped by the “live” coverage of an event that had actually taken place 15 minutes earlier.

This might have been an extreme case, but digital technologies do result in all sorts of delays. Is anything ever live any more?

Just because there’s a fast connection near you, doesn’t mean you can use it

My attention was grabbed this morning by this headline:

City missing out on broadband

on this story http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/city-missing-out-on-broadband.18176315 about Glasgow having the lowest take up of broadband in the country.

I meet a lot of people, particularly out in the countryside, when I am working on rural broadband issues, who think that the cities are all sorted when it comes to digital inclusion and people benefiting from modern technologies. My response to that is often to point out that having a fast connection running past your home, or close to it, does not necessarily mean you can afford to use it. There are all sorts of factors, not least finances, which prevent people from benefiting from what the internet has to offer in the modern world.


Do people who don’t want the web need the internet?

Some quick thoughts on today’s DOTs (Digital Outreach Trainers) Celebration Event in Sheffield, which I was at (see #dotevent on Twitter). I was there live streaming the event, but it raised some thoughts with me.

There was some talk about how the “digitally excluded” are getting ever harder to engage, principally because the principal reason they now express for not being online is not cost, lack of access or ignorance, but lack of interest. The story goes that these people actively don’t want to be engaged, so they are the most difficult nuts to crack.

There was also some discussion about how the stats about people who are not online are increasingly looking similar to those about people with literacy and numeracy issues. Could it be that the digital refuseniks are actually hiding the fact that they can’t read and write well enough to access the web.

And this leads me to another thought. I think there is a lot of confusing of the World Wide Web with the Internet. The Web is where the words, pictures and videos reside. The internet is what connects them, and other things, together. I know myself, from the work I have been doing on rural broadband in places like Lincolnshire, Cheshire and Durham, that there are lots of people out there who say they don’t need the internet, but, in many cases, what they are really saying is, they don’t need the Web. Ask them if they would like networked CCTV cameras, Telehealth and Telecare, or smart meters, and you may get a very different answer.

This could be a particular issue in the quest to connect up our remotest rural communities. Even those who do not want to read online newspapers, look at online photos, or watch online videos, may well appreciate the ability to monitor their stock via an online CCTV camera, or get a virtual doctor visit.

I think we need to stop conflating the Web with the Internet to identify why people really need to be connected.

The Can’t Get Online Tales

I’ve been thinking about ways to keep the Can’t Get Online campaign going, now the week has ended. The problems the Week highlighted have not gone away, although I hope it did something to help bring solutions closer.

Some time ago, I read an article about the novel and movie plot lines which would be ruined had their narratives taken place after the invention of the mobile phone. But that doesn’t apply in many rural areas. Without a mobile signal, people cannot be tracked down or interrupted, or call for help.

The most important part of Can’t Get Online Week, for me, was the collection of stories people had to tell about the problems that not being able to get online presented them with. I think stories are powerful tools for engagement. So, I present a couple of “Can’t Get Online” Tales for your enjoyment or critique. And please feel free to post your own.

Little Red Riding Hood and the lack of network signal

As Little Red Riding Hood makes her way through the forest her parents hear stories on the news about a wolf loose in the neighbourhood. Their frantic calls fail to alert Red, however, as their is no signal coverage in the forest. As Red arrives at Grandma’s cottage, a brief moment of connection flashes a warning text message on her phone, but it is too late to stop the wolf slamming the door shut behind her and gobbling her up.

Later the wolf slopes off to sleep off his huge, undigested meal, but makes the mistake of heading for the local hill-top which has line-of-sight to a distant phone mast. The hunter is alerted by Red Riding Hood’s phone ringing in the wolf’s belly and cuts him open to release Red and her grandma.

Jack and The Beans-Talk-Talk

Jack’s mother tries to research the likely selling price of the family cow on the internet, but, frustrated by her slow connection, she sends Jack off to market, telling him to “get what he can”. When Jack returns with the magic beans, his mother attempts to go online to find out what they are, but the answers take too long to download. so she throws the beans out of the window in frustration.

The next morning, Jack climbs up the beanstalk, but finds there is no mobile signal in the giant’s castle, so is unable to tell anyone else what he has found. Later, as he hides in terror from the enraged giant, a brief moment of connection causes the text message signal on his phone to sound loudly in his pocket, giving away his location to the giant, and forcing him to flee, leading to the denouement of the tale, with the cutting down of the beanstalk with giant crashing to the ground, before Jack has had a chance to steal any of the treasure in the castle.

Do you have your own Can’t Get Online tale?

Can’t Get Online Week – The Amazing WiBE

I don’t usually endorse products, but, during Can’t Get Online Week, I experienced something which really knocked me sideways. In the run up to the week, Richard Dix of Rural Broadband contacted me to ask if I would like a loan of a WiBE (Wireless Broadband Extender) for the week. I gratefully accepted his offer, but did so with a degree of skepticism. I had read some of the publicity about the WiBE which seemed to make unfeasible claims about its ability to get mobile broadband signals in places where no other device could get one, but I was willing to give it a go, as some of the places I was due to visit during the week would offer it a real challenge.

So, as I was leaving the second event of day 2 at Sedgeford, Norfolk, Richard handed over the box containing the WiBE and I wired it into the car to make the Can’t Get Online Week vehicle truly internet enabled.

WiBE in @citycarclub carI also took possession of a second WiBE to hand over to Lindsey Annison for testing in the Cyberbarn and other remote parts of Cumbria, and Chris Conder had already received hers through the post, and was putting it through its paces around north Lancashire.

My initial impression was that the WiBE was getting an impressively stable signal in the car as I drove from Norfolk to Birmingham, but I didn’t really get a chance to put it through its paces until I reached the Cyberbarn in Warcop on the Wednesday evening. There, in a village where mobile signals are at best patchy, and half the households can get no broadband connection at all via landlines, the WiBE registered between 2 and 3Mbps in different locations.

But, the really impressive performance came on Thursday afternoon, at the Goats on the Roof Cafe. Jumping into the car after an impassioned meeting at Byers Green in County Durham, I headed up the A1, past Newcastle, turned off, and trusted the SatNav to take me to the right place. I was having doubts as the roads got windier and narrower, and seemed to go on for ever. But, then I saw the Goats on the Roof sign.

Goats on the roof sign

But, even then, there was a bit of doubt, as this led me on to a single-track road which seemed to take a long while to navigate. Then a reservoir came into view, with a wooden building in the foreground, which I was relieved to discover was the cafe in question.

Goats on the Roof CafeAs you can see, it was getting dark, and, unfortunately, I was not to be fortunate enough to see any actual goats on the roof. As I got out of the car, I thought that this had to be the most remote venue of the week, there wasn’t a house to be seen for miles.

Any way, I soon learned that the internet connectivity for the cafe, and for 11 other households in the area, was provided by the Fontburn Internet Project whose members share a 3Mbps connection which is bounced around the hills by wireless means.

At this point, I plugged in the WiBE, fully expecting it not to work at all, as, not only is there no landline connection at Goats on the Roof, I was told that no one gets a mobile signal out there. And this is where I, and everyone else present, reeled in astonishment, as the WiBE pulled in a signal in excess of 4Mbps. Here’s the proof.

Goats on the roof speedtest

And so, in an area where no one gets a mobile signal, and no one can watch youtube or BBC iPlayer, we were able to do a live video Skype call with Richard Dix and I was able to play “Frozen Planet” on iPlayer.

As the Speed Test says, the WiBE had turned Fontburn from one of the more difficult connectivity areas in the country, to one which was suddenly “Faster than 52% of GB”.

And, since then, Chris and Lindsey have been out testing their WiBE’s in remote areas, and getting similarly remarkable results. You can see some of Chris’s tests on Fibre the Dog’s Bambuser channel here.

So, there it is. I was honestly amazed with what the WiBE could do. I am not sure it is a long term solution for internet access, but, if it can take people, in an instant, from having no internet connection at all, to having 4Mbps, it has got to be worth checking out.

More about the WiBE here http://ruralbroadband.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=73&Itemid=105


Just as an addition to this post, I checked out the mobile broadband coverage map for Goats on the Roof. It shows no signal coverage at all on the Three network.

Three Network Coverage for Goats on the Roof

Can’t Get Online Week – Some first reflections

I’m probably going to write a lot of reflections on Can’t Get Online Week. This is the first, relatively immediate reaction.

Can't Get Online - Moorsholm

Last week, I drove more than 1300 miles visiting communities that struggle to get internet connections and feel cut off from the modern world. I started off in the New Forest and reached north Northumberland, before turning south to finish the week in Yorkshire, where I live. But what did I learn, apart from the fact that England is a big country? Well, I think there were a number of main lessons:

  • The tipping point has come – no one thinks internet access is not essential any more;
  • Poor connectivity can be an accident of economics as well as geography. Some less remote communities struggle through lack of investment in connectivity infrastructure because they have traditionally not been seen as lucrative markets;
  • There are very many communities where the maximum achievable connectivity through landlines is 0.5Mbps, and still more where it is much worse;
  • There is very little awareness in many communities of the County Broadband Plans being drawn up by local authorities and their partners; and, where there is awareness, people either cannot afford to wait for them to work their way through, or don’t believe they will ever reach their communities;
  • People are suffering NOW from poor connectivity. Young people are failing in school through not being able to do online homework; business people are having to maintain expensive urban properties to get connectivity; villages are being depopulated; and property prices are falling;
  • many rural communities know nothing about the successes of their counterparts elsewhere in taking their own steps to improve connectivity because the only available source of information is online, and they cannot access it.

Here’s A.J. whose education is directly suffering through poor broadband. He will not get a second chance at his school days  

And Steve Clarke, in Essex, was typical of the business people I met who are having real problems

But, I am an optimist, and what I am really optimistic about, following Can’t Get Online Week, is community spirit. At some of the events I convened, their were neighbours who had never spoken to each other before, who not only started a dialogue, drawn together by their mutual lack of broadband, but finished the meeting vowing to work together to do something about it. I think lack of broadband can be a galvanising issue for community spirit, and I hope I have been able to play a small part in planting a few sparks to that end.

We need to do something about this issue, and it needs to be done quickly before the urban / rural divide gets wider. If you can help me with practical action, then please get in touch with me by any of the methods here.

In the run up to Can’t Get Online Week, I appeared on Radio 4’s “Today” programme, Radio 5 Live’s “Outriders” and was interviewed by the Guardian and the Huddersfield Examiner. During the week, I appeared on BBC Radio Norfolk, BBC Radio Lancashire, Stray FM, BBC Radio Humberside, BBC TV’s “Look North”, and an online video for “Farmers’ Weekly”. Can’t Get Online Week was featured in countless local papers and specialist publications.

Can’t Get Online Week secured the support of Downton Abbey actor Hugh Bonneville, and was tweeted about by Stephen Fry.

I have a model now (following on from Twicket, the world’s first live broadcast of a village cricket match) for using Social Media campaigns to raise the profile of issues and campaigns to national, regional and local prominence. Please contact me if you’d like me to do the same for you.

Media Appearances in Can’t Get Online Week

Here are my mainstream media appearances during Can’t Get Online Week

Monday 31st October – BBC Radio Norfolk Breakfast Show

Wednesday 2nd November – BBC Radio Lancashire Breakfast Show

Friday 4th November – BBC Radio Humberside Breakfast Show

And here is me being interviewed by Johann Tasker of “Famers’ Weekly”

Can’t Get Online Week – Day 6

The final day of the challenge began with torrential rain, but the mood was brightened immediately when I walked into Moorsholm Memorial Hall to be greeted by some 50 residents, together with the local MP, Tom Blenkinsopp, who were passionate and committed in their determination to do something about the poor quality of broadband in their North Yorkshire village. As resident after resident pointed out, Moorsholm is not particularly remote, and yet there are people there who get landline broadband speeds as low as 68kbps. Particularly frustrating is that next-door neighbours can get wildly different speeds to each other. There were tales about the impossibility of doing business online; about having to move away to study, and a story about the lady who is unable to use Skype to see her grandchildren in Australia.

The really good news is that Moorsholm seems to have a plan coming together to address its problems, led by local resident, Trevor Watson. As Tom Blenkinsop, MP agreed, poor broadband has become a powerful catalyst for community action in the village.

Here, Moorsholm residents tell their stories.

Ian Soloman

Graeme Aldous

Steve Nichols

Carmen Smith

Steven Cook

Trevor Watson

Alan Slater

and Tom Blenkinsop MP, praises the community’s efforts

I was sorry to leave Moorsholm, where the community spirit was truly infectious, but it was back in the car and over the foggy and very wet heights of the North Yorkshire Moors, heading for the next venue, The Triton Inn, at Sledmere, near Driffield. This visit was covered by BBC TV’s “Look North”, and was remarkable for the only occasion when the WiBE failed to get a signal.

Here Simon Ullyott talks about the problems of trying to do business online in the area.

When we emerged from the Triton Inn, the sun had come out and it shone all the way to the next venue, in the church at South Stainley, near Harrogate. This was the final venue of the week, and there was another interesting community gathering. Discussion started with residents venting their frustration with their current lack of connectivity, again in a not particularly remote community, on the main road between Harrogate and Ripon. As the discussion progressed, resolution grew to do something about the situation, and Parish Councillor, John Denton, agreed to call people together so they could explore the options.

Here John Denton and Hugh Lewis talk about the problems poor broadband causes them.

It was perhaps fitting that the final event of Can’t Get Online Week ended with a practical demonstration of the issues such communities face. One resident received a call that her son had missed the school bus because he had been kept behind after school to talk about the late submission of his online homework. The homework had been late because he had to wait to visit his grandmother in London to do it, not being able to do it at home. As the meeting ended, A.J. and his mum arrived, and A.J. agreed to talk on camera about the issue.

And so, that was that. What a week it was.

I’ll post some more reflective thoughts when I have time, but at the moment, the overwhelming feelings are tiredness and inspiration. It is truly inspiring that communities are using their frustration with poor connections to come together and do something about it.

The tiredness might have something to do with more than 1300 miles on the car’s clock