Note of the Cross Party Group in the Scottish Parliament on Digital Participation held on Wednesday 14 September 2011
Willie Coffey welcomed members to the meeting and was pleased to report that the number of members was growing and that we were getting a number of approaches from speakers wishing to address the CPG.
He introduced the first speaker, Sheena Watson of Digital Fife, accompanied by Charlie Anderson, Head of ICT at Fife Council and John Hay, project lead for Digital FEAT.
SW spoke about the Digital Fife online community which has over 240 websites developed by community groups in Fife and over 1250 learners .Fife has also developed a Digital Inclusion strategy which had a starting point of : What would a Digitally Inclusive Fife look like? It utilises a number of local partnerships joined up by a local government strategy group and is community led with local champions.
CA spoke about the Council’s aspiration to ‘channel shift’ users and to move public services online. This was tied to digital inclusion and the Council’s infrastructure investment with acknowledgement of the wider community benefits it could bring.
JH outlined his project using touchscreen technology as a way of providing broader access to the internet and information. It focuses primarily on mental health issues and is part of a broader agenda about getting people back to work. The project has two elements; a social network with information on mental health issues and conditions and offline work in the community using technology. It helps to get information out to people and allows them to browse and download via Bluetooth to their mobile phones. It is a menu based touchscreen technology, provided free of charge, which is discreet and less visible than perhaps a hard copy leaflet and allows users to share it instantly with their support network. The project had used the local store and library bus to locate their access points.
In the future they hope to use the project and its technology to raise awareness of other third sector organisations and to form a social enterprise providing employment and services to the community.
WC thanked the presenters and asked for their thoughts on why a gap still exists in take up. SW said that it was complex and although income was certainly a factor they were seeing feedback from their debt advisory service that people will strive to keep their broadband connection seeing it as essential. In some areas of Fife the costs can be higher due to lack of competition of supply of services in the broadband market. Another issue could simply be reporting; people may not be categorising smartphone use as internet use. There was also a lack of policy within councils and other public bodies as well as employers over social media use. A member asked about reluctant users and how to break down the barriers. SW replied that around 50% of the people involved with the project were in the housing association/regeneration sector and the other half were interested in health related issues. Her experience suggests that once people are part of a community offline and see a chance to benefit it online they will take it for the sake of their chosen community. They are happy to learn the skills when they can see a direct benefit to the area with which they are already involved.
Another member asked about the concept of isolated people becoming further isolated by having all their needs met online. SW said that is was a mixed economy with a time and place for both forms of interaction. SW added that online can spark the connection but it is not about delivering ‘the full meal’ more about showing the menu. A member commented on issue of businesses utilising public sector networks to spark economic growth, while another asked if the resources that Digital Fife had developed were re-useable. JH said that they were and once the social enterprise element had been set up this would broaden the ability for this to happen. Some parts of the earlier programme were tied to the original funding, but they were free to use if you registered and data was tracked using postcodes to identify impact and gaps.
In response to an earlier point about isolation a member directed the group to a recent study suggesting that social media can in fact have a positive benefit on social inclusion by giving people a community to belong to.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise
The next presentation came from Stuart Robertson of Highlands and Islands Enterprise who detailed their approach to improving connectivity as a priority. ICT is not considered something for specialists or ‘techies’ it is applicable to all frontline staff and enables everything that they do. There is also recognition that you cannot just put in services and do nothing else. In the area there are exchanges working on older technology called Exchange Activate that was good for 1st generation services but cannot now cope with the progression required. There is also limited LLU rollout and low 3G coverage. Mobile broadband can be a solution but would not be based on the current rollout. There is also a need to drive competition to drive down the prices of services. The Highlands and Islands have lived through a number of technology rollouts and experience suggest that they will be in the ‘final third’ so it was decided a couple of years ago to proactively seek a solution to this.
Procurement for the project happened in June and took an economic development approach where the aspiration was laid out and industry proposals were designed to meet it. The aspiration was based upon UK and EU targets of universal 30 MB by 2020 and 2 MB by 2015. BD UK have altered their approach somewhat with a shift to ‘pots’ for the Nations. In the Highlands and Islands the estimated costs of provision are around £300million. One of the key issues is how to get a good level and reliability of service to the Islands. The announcement of a preferred supplier is likely to be mid 2012 with upgrades beginning later in the year or early in 2013.
WC thanked SR for his presentation and asked if the Highlands and Islands were in contact with other areas in a similar situation? SR confirmed this was the case and that HIE were ‘happy to share their scars’ to save the time and resource of others planning similar projects. A member asked about utilising satellite technology. SR replied that all technologies are under consideration however past experience of satellite has not been as good as it could be. Another member suggested that we could benefit businesses through public sector procurements. A member commented that surely the rollout plans in Northern Ireland and the South of England, who without the benefits of devolution, have developed at a much faster rate. SR said that NI did have a head start as they had a fibre ring around the territory.
The discussion moved back to satellite technology and what the specific issues are with it. In the experience of a number of members it was useful for getting to remote areas but at quiet a high cost compared to other technologies such as fibre, it provided limited bandwidth to individuals as well. White space technology was raised as an alternative to satellite to provide wireless delivery for the last mile.
Ofcom – Communications Market Report
Vicki Nash was introduced to the CPG and she spoke about Ofcom’s annual release of data under their Communications Market Report research programme. The headlines were that Scotland’s take up of broadband at home had flat lined at 61%. Scotland was displaying lower satisfaction levels with broadband speeds but on a positive note 3G rollout had increased significantly in the last year. She mentioned a new interactive broadband map which it was hoped would help local authorities and community groups to demonstrate the gaps in their areas when they were developing bids to the BD UK fund. More information is due to be released by Ofcom in the autumn on infrastructure, covering mobile networks. Ofcom were also designing a major spectrum auction in the 800Mhz and 2.6GHz bands which will increase the coverage of mobile broadband services.
WC thanked VN and asked her why broadband take up had flat lined? VN pointed to the answer given earlier by SW of Digital Fife and re-stated that it was a complex picture. A member from the Scottish Libraries and Information Council reported some data from their recent ‘First Click’ campaign and said that even with a high profile partner such as the BBC, the take up of skills development sessions had been slow. She offered to share more at a future meeting.
With regard to the spectrum auction mentioned, a member suggested that communications providers were suggesting that a reduced licence rate would enable better coverage of services. VN replied that Ofcom were doing further work on the costs and benefits of the coverage issue but that initial findings had pointed to a ‘tipping point’ where the costs of rollout became exponentially high.
A member questioned why the bundling of services and consumers taking bundles of services was considered a good thing.
Supporting the work of the CPG
WC brought the meeting to a close and said that the door was always open to members to speak or raise issues at the CPG. The idea of introducing a small subscription charge to cover the costs of catering was raised. Members would be consulted fully before any decision would be taken. Organisations who were members had been incredibly generous with their support in that past and if any wanted to sponsor a future meeting, the costs are around £200.
The next meeting is due to be in December and members would be notified of this as soon as it is confirmed.