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Digital inclusion – Digital Merthyr

Jules Birch reports on how Merthyr Valleys Homes is bringing wifi to its tenants with a little help from Catalonia

Digital exclusion meets social exclusion in Merthyr. A survey by Sheffield Hallam University identified it as the town in Wales that would be worst affected by the bedroom tax and another by Ofcom found that almost half of the population has no broadband access.

With universal credit also on the horizon, Merthyr Valleys Homes (MVH) wanted to do something to bring the internet to its communities – but what exactly? ‘We were thinking how can we provide wifi but there were lots of decisions to be made,’ says chief executive Mike Owen. ‘Everything seemed complex when the solution was really quite simple.’

The Digital Merthyr solution came via a grant from Nominet Trust, help from Creative Coop, a consortium of creative and technology professionals working with social enterprises, and finally talking to Guifi-net, a specialist in self-managed community networks that has connected 35,000 people in Catalonia. The grant funded the recruitment of Nick Giles, a computer science graduate, as project officer and he headed off to Barcelona to for some training

Gellideg, where 80 per cent of residents are affected by welfare reform but less than a third are online, was the first area to benefit. ‘We chose the estate where it would have the biggest impact and where we had good links with the community centre,’ says Owen. ‘We worked with the local primary school to see which households didn’t have wifi for their children to do their homework and we prioritised them.’

The scheme involves splitting the wifi capacity from MVH’s office. ‘The first line we did was from my office,’ he says. ‘An aerial was fixed to the side of the building and then beamed across the valley to the estate.’

That connection is still the backbone of the system. From there, explains Nick Giles: ‘There’s a series of nodes or aerials on the estate and cable from them brings wifi into the house with a router in each.’

The system is cheap – around £30 per connection – and the overall cost so far
is around £80,000, including a £50,000 grant from Nominet. It’s also pretty resilient: ‘We had bad weather including lightning storms that caused static that damaged one piece of equipment but the system has held up pretty well,’ says Giles.

Compare that to the cost of commercial broadband connections and you can quickly see why it makes sense. There’s no need for a land line (£17 a month rental) or a Sky contract or an expensive mobile dongle. MVH had previously talked to BT, which offered to put wifi into every house as part of its social landord package. However, it would have had to guarantee to collect the telephone bill to get a discount. ‘That was 4,000 properties with us taking the risk and it would have cost something like £1.2 million a year,’ says Mike Owen.

Even before universal credit, the benefits of digital inclusion seem obvious, with residents able to make job club applications without having to use expensive pay as you go mobile connections and with less risk of having their benefits sanctioned.

An evaluation of the first stage of the project found that: ‘The potential for a ground-breaking solution to backhaul access for deprived communities to flow from the Digital Merthyr project exists, founded upon sharing economy principles or a collaborative consumption model, and is already impacting the way in which significant stakeholders elsewhere are thinking about their approach to both the digital by default and assisted digital agendas.’

The system was developed with specialist help from Guifi-net, which still offers technical support, but from there was taken forward with a self-help ethos through a core group of six local digital champions. ‘There’s no reason why anyone can’t learn it,’ says Nick Giles.

The evaluation report also has plenty of examples of tenants who’ve benefitted:

  • Rachel and her partner previously had no internet aaccess but now her children use it to complete their homework and she can undertake job searches much more easily
  • Terry and his partner previously had a commercial broadband connection but were struggling to pay the bills. Now they’re saving £25 a month and he’s considering setting up his own custom t-shirt business run primarily over the Digital Merthyr connection.
  • Chris lives with his mother and is her main carer. He previously had no internet connection but now he can get online to get the best deal when he gets the chance to shop and he’s hoping to access additional health services for her online.

The next stage of the project is to extend to Mandeg, a community that is isolated and a long way from the MVH office and has just lost its bus services. Longer term, MVH is talking to the Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council about European Social Fund money and wants to set up a social enterprise to run the network.

‘The network is free so far but we’ve got to get a proper business plan,’ says Mike Owen. ‘If it costs anything more than £5 a month people won’t pay but £5 a month is still a lot of cash. We need others to join us. As part of our commitment we would link up every one of our properties.’ He draws the analogy that in the 1930s people got together collectively to provide schools and libraries. ‘With expensive phone lines and Sky contracts and beholden to the major providers, communities like Merthyr are always going to be disenfranchised. We thought this was important.’

And looking beyond Merthyr he believes there is potential across Wales for something similar. ‘The Welsh Government has made a huge investment in wifi. Every primary school in Wales is linked to the system and they could share the signal at weekends and after four for free.’

For more information see www.digitalmerthyr.org.uk



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