Features: March 18th, 2003

Broadband Britain – The Case for Connected Communities

By Tony Grace

After a slow start, the take-up of broadband in Britain has definitely begun to pick up pace. Industry leaders, analysts and the government all agree that the focus should now be shifted to connecting entire communities throughout the UK and ensuring that public services play a major role in making this happen.

Broadband connectivity outperforms all conventional dial-up telephone networks at every level, offering a faster and more secure method of downloading text, images and sound which supports sophisticated applications and solutions.

Despite the fact that the UK government has committed less per head to broadband than other European countries (?er head as opposed to around ?per head in France) Britain overtook France in broadband take-up by the end of 2002.

On the consumer front, one in 10 homes with Internet access now uses broadband services and the UK has exceeded 1.4 million broadband connections. And it’s not just in the home where broadband is making a difference. According to a recent survey from the Institute of Directors, more than three quarters of UK companies have made cost savings thanks to broadband connectivity.

Government Support

When the Government made further announcements last year around its own high profile ‘Broadband Britain’ campaign, its main commitment was to introduce broadband into every Public Sector site in the UK, acknowledging public services would drive the initiative forward in 2003.

In November 2002, Prime Minister Tony Blair told an “E-Summit” in London that a milestone has been reached by ensuring that there is “access to the Internet for everyone who wants it by 2005”.

He pledged an investment of more than ?illion as part of the spending review, which will be used to network many of Britain’s public services, including every primary and secondary school, GP surgery, hospital and Primary Care Trust, as well as the NHS and the criminal justice system.

The importance of such a commitment has also been echoed at the EU, where the Commissioner for Telecoms, Erkki Liikanen, has urged all member countries to follow Britain’s example and prioritise the implementation of broadband access to all public administrations, schools and hospitals by 2005.

Connecting Communities

Behind the UK Government investment is a recognition that the way forward is to develop connected communities. These will actively promote and demonstrate the benefits of broadband access by bringing its advantages directly to local people.

The concept of the ‘connected community’ is not new to Telewest Business, which has over ten years’ experience in delivering high-bandwidth services to both the private and public sectors. Telewest’s fibre-optic cable network was the first to be designed and built around local and regional community clusters throughout the UK, enabling the business division to provide services to offices, schools, community enterprises, local government, health authorities, and the emergency services.

The benefits of effectively bringing together Public Sector organisations with its citizens, employees, suppliers and partners, are numerous. This enables better value, improved service delivery, more efficient communication and cross-departmental working.

Connecting Knowsley

One good example which illustrates how a local authority can form the backbone of a connected community is Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council, with whom Telewest Business has been involved in developing a ‘Community Information Network’.

This network electronically links over 160 sites including schools and libraries in the area and the result is one of the fastest and most secure networks operating within a local authority. Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council is one of the largest in Britain and serves over 155,000 people in 33 square mile area.

Over the past four years, the council has developed an extensive range of government initiatives collectively known as the Community Information Programme (CIP).

This programme is designed to equip the people and businesses of Knowsley with access to up-to-date information, learning systems and two-way communications, through sophisticated yet user-friendly systems.

By proving itself to be such a forward-thinking council, Knowsley MBC’s programme has secured over ?m of industrial investment, safeguarding around 1,600 jobs and creating over 4,000 new jobs in the area.

Critical to the entire project is the development of a world-class communication infrastructure: a broadband network capable of supporting voice, video and data which is constantly developing to include a broader range of multimedia services, video-on-demand and new applications.

For example, there is a local history site containing over 2,000 pages of images and text about the area which is now immediately accessible, as opposed to previously only being available through prior appointment.

By May 2002 more than 6,000 people had registered to use the Knowsley MBC’s public e-mail system. A total of 272,000 users had accessed the two ‘one-stop shops’ which provide computerised information about local services and jobs.

The Council is also providing Internet access via libraries and council offices, as well as online interactive projects for schools.

Focus on Education

One area which is central to the development and growth of broadband in public services is the Education sector, which received particular emphasis from Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Government’s London ‘E-Summit’ when he announced that broadband connections to every school in the UK would be funded and implemented by 2006.

The Prime Minister emphasised that Information and Communications Technology (ICT) development in education was essential to the future of the UK economy and that the fundamental challenge was to create a ‘knowledge driven economy’ that serves long-term goals. At the hub of this is high-speed broadband connectivity.

Educational Aims

The goal is to ensure that every primary and secondary school in the country will have high-speed always-on Internet access, financed by the Government.

The DTI has grouped local education authorities into ten regional broadband consortia which will work on their own projects to initiate local broadband roll-out while reviewing the successful projects undertaken by other groups.

Telewest Business is involved in steering development within education and is a founder member of the ‘Learning Lab’, a collaborative venture to create a European centre of excellence and the first point of contact for anyone who is interested in the design, development and delivery of technology enhanced learning solutions. The Learning Lab, founded in the West Midlands in 1999, has been selected by DfES as its National ICT Research Centre.

Telewest Business is also actively promoting the Government’s National Grid for Learning (NGfL) initiative, which aims to help learners and educators in the UK to benefit from ICT. One such project is in Wolverhampton, where Telewest Business has provided broadband connections to each of the 101 primary schools in the area as part of a ?million project.

Through the project, the schools have access to the Wolverhampton Grid for Learning as well as the wider NGfL, providing students and teachers with high quality electronic learning materials by increasing pupils’ access to online education services.

Broadband has meant that the network run from the Wolverhampton City Council offices is now up to 80 times faster than the ISDN lines many schools currently rely on.

Such developments within education are not restricted to schools, but also extend to further education and adult learning.

Broadband In Action

Other areas of the Public Sector are already well underway in developing exciting new applications through broadband, enabling information exchange between different organisations such as hospitals, the ambulance service and the police.

The NHS announced in January that it is currently in the process of upgrading NHSNet, the broadband network that connects some 4,000 hospitals and GP surgeries. This will enable faster hospital referrals, online booking of appointments and immediate access to patient records.

At the United Bristol Healthcare Trust, Telewest Business has installed an Internet Protocol Virtual Private Network (IPVPN) exactly for this purpose, using sophisticated high-speed fixed links to improve patient care and streamline medical systems. Two hospitals in the area, Bristol Royal Infirmary and Bristol General Hospital, are already up and running on the network, with a further 10 planned for roll-out in 2003. A number of local GP surgeries will be connected as part of the project.

An electronic patient record system will be created which will integrate all health and social care records and be used by NHS trusts, the ambulance service, NHS Direct and the county council.

Another major project that Telewest Business has been involved in is a ? million high-speed broadband network developed for West Midlands Police, which transports voice and data traffic between the regional force’s main call centres and other key sites within the region.

The purpose of this Wide Area Network (WAN) is to relieve bottlenecks that were previously evident in certain areas of the system and enable faster, secure and more accurate exchange of critical information.

All of these projects serve as examples of the benefits offered by broadband connectivity within the Public Sector.

Well-planned networks within communities offer flexible methods of communication matched by speed, accuracy and affordability. Broadband is set to revolutionise public services over the next three years.

Industry Support

In its support of the ongoing campaign to speed up broadband roll-out across Britain, Telewest Business recently staged an event in London entitled “Connecting government through broadband”. The company teamed up with partners Cisco Systems and Atos KPMG Consulting to address how ‘connected communities’ could best be enabled using broadband technology. A programme of seminars is planned throughout 2003 as a continuation of this session.

Tony Grace is chief operating officer Virgin Media.