The following headline on the BBC News website on January 14 caught my eye - 'Internet gap hits poorer children, campaigners claim'. The item refers to the fact that an estimated 500,000 pupils do not have the internet access at home that is increasingly required to complete homework, or access lesson content.
The reason this piece rang true for me relates to my time, 12 years ago, as a governor of our village primary school. In an effort to address the problem of pupils lacking access to the internet at home the school was given 12 PCs with dial-up modems to lend to families. The eligibility requirements being that the family was both receiving income support and had a landline for the modem.
What had not been considered in the initiative was the fact that those on income support were not considered credit worthy enough by BT to provide a landline. In our locality, some of the target group had previously been disconnected and still had outstanding arrears with BT. Only three of the 12 PCs were ever lent out.
The action group Mind the Gap is aiming for 100,000 more schoolchildren to be connected at home within the next year. One of the proposals is that schools use their pupil premium monies to pay for equipment and fixed broadband to be installed. Sadly this will still not address the barrier we came across in 2001.
Technology has obviously moved on, and there is now the potential for 3G/4G access to the internet for some schools and families. This may be an option, but it ignores that other barrier highlighted by the word 'village'. Rural access to broadband whether fixed line or via mobile telephony is still woefully inadequate across the UK and looks likely to remain so, with the target of 90% broadband coverage by 2015 recently amended to provide for 95% of
homes by 2017.
In my village, because I am in 'stone throwing' distance of our exchange I can get 6.1 megabits download during the day, but when the local children with access to broadband come home from school, and start steaming, performance for all of us can become be as good as those modems in the PCs 12 years ago. I certainly can't get 4G on any network and even 3G is variable, despite the O2 mast being on the previously mentioned telephone exchange.
Good news however is that a number of rural communities are seeking themselves to fix gaps left by BT coverage, and I will reflect on my current favourites in a future post.