Hackney runs a serious risk of getting left behind as the rest of London goes digital.
The borough may be undergoing the biggest regeneration project of any London borough in the lead up to the 2012 Olympics, but it is standing on the sidelines of the digital revolution.
He added, however, that the council was signposting people to local libraries with IT facilities, promoting the roaming Purple Bus, which provides free IT facilities for 11-19 year olds, and funding IT facilities for local community halls.
But with 22,147 tenants on Hackney’s estates, and 8,788 leaseholders, plus others who are also unlikely to be able to afford broadband, this could be little consolation.
Asked how tenants and residents on Hackney’s council estates would respond to free broadband, Milton Gardens resident Shaun Ashby says, “I think most people would be interested if free broadband were rolled out. It would be a great incentive for people around here to get online”.
Government figures estimate that ten per cent of households in the UK remain unconnected, or use an impracticably slow connection speed.
In a borough such as Hackney, which has a disproportionate number of young people in deprived areas and an unemployment rate four per cent above the London average, getting up to speed could bring important benefits.
Other boroughs – for example, neighbouring Islington – appear to be doing better. In 2005, Islington Council set up a community wireless broadband scheme – the first of its kind in the UK. The ‘Technology Mile’ along Upper Street and Holloway Road remains London’s biggest zone of free wireless internet access. The scheme now has around 4,000 registered users.
Of arguably greater importance than the Technology Mile is Islington council’s provision of free broadband to thousands of the least well-off residents in social housing. The council has also donated recycled computers to families unable to afford them.
Jessica McArdle, marketing manager at internet company Top 10 Broadband, says, “After [the scheme’s] success it’s staggering that no other London council has followed suit, especially since wi-fi community networks could be the social glue that keeps under-pressure communities together.”
Islington councillor John Gilbert, executive member for corporate resources says, “A third of estate families do not have access to broadband. But this project has made residents better connected at no cost to themselves and at very little cost to the council.”
The key to achieving an overhaul of current standards, according to the Government’s Digital Britain report, is to provide every home with access to free and fast broadband by 2012. Access to the internet is no mere convenience – it is crucial in gaining access to job opportunities, paying lower utility bills, learning new skills, doing homework, and staying in touch.