Connected Christmas 2018

And so, here we are again. It’s time to plan for Connected Christmas 2018.


I think this is the fifth year I have done this. We still haven’t solved loneliness among older generations (and this is in spite of recent research which concluded that loneliness was a bigger issue among young people than among older citizens – this is not a reason to ease up on tackling older isolation); and we still haven’t made mainstream the idea that older people can use new technologies to connect with each other and with family, friends, and health and care providers.

These are the reasons why I run Connected Christmas Parties. These are events where older people celebrate Christmas (I am not talking about on Christmas Day here) in the usual way, but part of the mix is that I show them how they might use new technologies to make their lives more connected, more fun and more informed. I do this for a few hundred pounds per event. This does not include the cost of room hire and catering. The events work best where the Connected element “piggy-backs” on an existing event which people are already commited to attend, in a familiar environment.

I hope in the next week or two to be able to announce some exciting news about a plan for a number of Connected Christmas events in Huddersfield and possibly the wider Kirklees District. Watch this space for that. But I want to make Connected Christmas a national, and even international movement, so I would love to run one every day over the Christmas period, and, if its feasible, all over the UK. So please contact me if I can help you run a Connected Christmas event in your area.

It is vital that we get older people more connected to reduce their social isolation, to help them access online services and to benefit from connected health and care services. If you share these objectives, please get in touch and let’s make Connected Christmas a key feature of the forthcoming festive period.

I’ve set up a crowdfunder to help me take Connected Christmas to a wider audience. Please help and share if you can

Digital Flu Clinic

This Saturday (7th October) I will be undertaking what I think is another first, a Digital Flu Clinic. What’s that, I hear you ask?

Well, I’ll be working with Seascale Health Centre in Cumbria to provide digital advice to the people who come to the Flu Clinic there this weekend. Like most parts of the health infrastructure, the Health Centre is keen to encourage its patients to take up online health services and use health apps. Many of its patients are older, and that applies particularly to those who are eligible for annual flu jabs. These patients are less likely to be using online services, particularly as broadband and mobile connectivity are poor in the area.

Seascale Health Centre covers an area of some 350 square miles which has a population only of around 5,500. 450 people are booked into the Flu Clinic, so this is a rare opportunity in such a sparsely populated area to get such a large group of people together in one place. And it is an added bonus that most of the 450 will be older people.

I am really looking forward to helping people to get to grips with the issues holding back their digital lives. Solving those issues will have much wider benefits in their lives than simply interacting with health services. I also think we have hit upon a concept that could be replicated elsewhere. Who else is up for a Digital Flu Clinic?

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


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

Can’t Get Online Week – Day 5

Day 5 started at the Northern Farming Conference in Sedgefield, County Durham, where there were opportunities to interview a number of people, including the Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, Jim Paice MP

President of the CLA, William Worsley

and land agent, Alistair Cochrane

And then it was back in the car for the short journey to the Durham village of Byers Green, and one of the liveliest meetings of the week. This was an event organised by the good people of Digital Durham. I was told there had been a passionate public meeting the previous evening with 220 people packing out the Village Hall. A lot of thought had obviously gone into building the village’s case, and a good cross section of people were present at the meeting. They were certainly at the earliest stages of a campaign, but it was clear that there is a real momentum behind their determination to get decent broadband, and it is an issue which is bringing the community together. Byers Green is not far from the connurbations of Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor, but is still too far from the exchange for anyone to get more than 0.5Mbps.  I was sorry to leave Byers Green because the people’s passion was really infectious. But, before I did, I was able to capture some of the points people were making.

Cllr. Kevin Toms

Alan Brunskill

Tommy Thompson

David Cassie

Kevin Wood

Phil Jackman


Then it was back in the car, and off to Northumberland. Just north of the Angel of the North, the week’s journey reached the 1000 mile mark

It was 4pm when I arrived at the Goats on the Roof Cafe in Fontburn, Northumberland. This may have been the most remote location on the tour, and a good group was gathered, particularly focused around the people running the Fontburn Internet Project, which has connected up 11 households in the area to a wireless network. Unfortunately, there were no goats on the roof at the time, but an excellent discussion ensued about how the work on developing internet access can be a catalyst for community development.

One of the interesting aspects of the evening was what happened when I plugged in the WiBE (Wireless Broadband Extender) loaned to me by Richard Dix of Rural Broadband. No one can get a mobile phone signal at the cafe, but the WiBE was able to get a connection of more than 4Mbps, and we were able to watch BBC iPlayer and conduct a Skype video call with Richard.

Here are some of the stories from Fontburn.

Nina Remnant

Louise and Julie from Fontburn Internet Project

Fontburn was the furthest point north of the Can’t Get Online Week tour, which had started nearly on the south coast on Sunday. Now, the journey turned south for the final day in Yorkshire.

Can’t Get Online Week – Day 4

As Day 4 began, around 7:30, Chris Conder handed me the phone, saying that BBC Radio Lancashire just wanted to do a line test ahead of a live interview at 8:20. As I took the phone, a voice said “putting you through to the studio now” and, within seconds I was live on air.

Wray Institute

After that surprise, we headed off to Wray Village Institute for an intense morning of video and audio interviews with people from surrounding villages.

There were some incredible tales of the problems not being online has caused. in their lives, most of which they tell themselves in the videos that follow. But, one particular story stands out, that told by Ted Lester about his children who got detentions because they couldn’t do their online homework. There was a strong suggestion that the children did not want to admit not being able to get online at home as that would be a stigma among their friends.

Jan Forshaw

Nicholas Race, from Lancaster University, explaining the background to Wray Village as a Living Lab

Ted Lester

Mick and Tom

Keith, Margaret and Edward

Geoff Higgin

Rod Burgess

Carol Butcher

And an audio interview with Karen Denby


From Wray, it was on to the Westmorland Showground in Cumbria for another lively group discussion. This included a passionate rant by Jennet about her problems with getting any sort of broadband connection from BT and her frustrations with getting the situation redressed.

I was also able to get some background from County Broadband Plan Hub Co-ordinator Cath Davenport, on progress with the Plan in her part of Cumbria.

From there it was on to Garstang for a meeting of the CLA Lancashire Committee, and an opportunity to talk to some of those present about their involvement in broadband initiatives.

Past-President of the CLA, Rodney Swarbrick told me why it is important for the CLA to support the development of rural broadband.

Martin Harker, Manager of the Knowsley Estate, described how he has helped to bring fast fibre broadband to the estate

And, CLA North Director, Douglas Chalmers described some of the things the CLA is doing to support Rural Broadband initiatives

And then it was on to the Cyberbarn, the country’s first rural broadband demonstrator and training centre, in Warcop, Cumbria


Can’t Get Online Week – Day 3

Day 3 began with a welcome later start than the previous 2 days. Leaving Birmingham, I headed to Stoke-on-Trent to pick up Clare White, who had kindly organised a group meeting in Leek, and then it was on to the delightful Nicholson Institute, (scene of lectures by Oscar Wilde, so Clare told me) to meet an interesting group of people assembled from the surrounding rural communities.

We had a stimulating debate about the pros and cons of promoting the benefits of being online, and what that might mean for community-building in Leek’s rural hinterland. One of the topics centred on the community organisations whose membership is literally dying off due to their inability to recruit younger members, but which cannot, or will not, experiment with online engagement which could reach out to a potential younger membership. We learned, also, that those organisations which are attempting to reach out online are, as elsewhere, being frustrated by the lack of connectivity, both of Internet landlines and mobile phone signals. This was the first time during the Week that I encountered some active resistance to the idea that connecting up rural communities is a good thing. I think that I, and others present, were able to chip away at a good portion of that resistance, but not kill it completely.

Here, Melissa Worth and Clare White summarise some of this issues at the meeting, and speculate on what might have changed as a result.

Leaving Leek, after a lovely lunch outside in the November sunshine, I dropped Clare off in Burslem, and continued on to Trentham Gardens, where I had arranged to meet Mike Smith. Mike is an active resident of the North Shropshire town of Market Drayton, and had hoped to organise a Can’t Get Online Week event in the nearby village of Adderley, which I had intended as the next port of call on the tour. However, despite strenuous efforts, Mike had been unable to overcome considerable resistance to the idea that anything could be done about the village’s problems. So, we agreed to meet for a chat, during which I filled Mike in on a number of initiatives being taken by communities around the country to meet their own broadband needs.

Later on in the evening, Mike emailed me to let me know that, armed with the information I had given him, he had had a conversation with an influential local councillor who now agreed that a number of villages in the area needed to look at taking action to address their broadband deficit.

And so, it was onto the M6 to head north to Lancashire to join a meeting of the B4rn project (