Demos Daily: Broadband Britain

Today, people across the UK have been forced offline, as Virgin Media customers have been hit with their third internet outage. Reactions of horror followed on the news and social media, and the extent of reliance we have on the internet was highlighted yet again. Once upon a time, using the internet was seen as a niche, solitary pastime. But now, the use of broadband is instilled into most of our day-to-day lives. Back in 2004, we challenged a commonly held view that internet use discourages social interaction. We argued that there was potential for the web to help us develop deeper and more personalised relationships between individuals and throughout society. We have come a long way since this report was produced, but today’s events show that there is still work to be done to improve the UK’s broadband infrastructure, and more still to ensure that broadband is accessible to everyone.

Read the executive summary of Broadband Britain below, or the full report here.

Executive Summary

There was a time when using the internet was seen as a niche, solitary pastime. Even today, there remains a stubborn image of the online medium discouraging social interaction. This research demonstrates that this perception is not only out of date but also diametrically opposed to reality. Broadband is enabling fundamental behavioural change. In findings that many will find counter-intuitive, this study shows that people are using the high-speed internet to break down barriers and explore a wider, deeper and more personalised engagement with the outside world.

A catalyst for behavioural change

Whether in entertainment, community schemes or through consumption of public services, broadband is encouraging participation in society and creating new levels of cultural involvement.

This trend is revealed by new research conducted by AOL in the UK, which shows that in many broadband homes the computer has broken out of the traditional confines of the study. Indeed, according to the research, nearly half of broadband households in the UK (46%) have moved the PC into their daily living space, with 28% saying they access broadband from their living room and 18% from their bedroom.

Broadband is becoming embedded in our daily lives. There are the first signs that through broadband, the PC can provide a focal point in the home, switched on as a matter of course in the same way as the television or radio might be.

Furthermore, greater affordability and more public access points mean that broadband is no longer the sole preserve of the affluent. Its impact is being felt at all levels of society, although there is still some way to go before the digital divide is fully bridged.

The shift in behaviour flows principally from the ‘always on’ and faster nature of broadband. As the technology becomes invisible, people are increasingly liberated to explore how it can help them pursue their own social and cultural needs. AOL’s own data shows that broadband users spend significantly longer online than those on dial-up. And they are logging on when it suits them – polling for this research showed that some 59% of broadband users have logged on before breakfast, and 21% have surfed in the middle of the night.

Broadband is not creating numerous new activities, rather it is enabling people to transform the way they pursue existing interests and commitments. For example, 40% of broadband users say they are more likely to get involved in organising local events through the internet. This level of participation has implications for clubs, interest groups, government and anyone committed to re- invigorating communities.

Broadband Britain: The end of asymmetry

The research identifies the beginning of the end of asymmetry in Internet use. In other words, broadband has enabled a level of interactivity that means uploading and sharing information is as important as receiving it.

Our polling showed some significant results for levels of online participation:

  • 57% of broadband users have created content to post online that they would not otherwise have created offline
  • 59% of broadband users have posted comments on message boards
  • 28% have their own website
  • 56% post content more than once a month and 18% post content every day

Having always on access to broadband provides a low risk way of engaging with the world that we suggest is creating a culture of experimentation and empowerment.

Evidence of a social shift

Personal computers are becoming social computers. Our polling suggests that communities are increasingly facilitated by broadband – with 81% emailing people they would otherwise not stay in touch with and 26% using the internet to organise informal events.

But beyond this, our research suggests that the end of asymmetry in Internet use is empowering people and increasing social participation. The report explores a number of examples – entertainment (using the specific example of the music industry), community and public service provision – to cite evidence of where UK life is being altered by broadband. We have outlined four principles to help navigate these changes:

1. Flexibility

One area in which flexibility may be particularly important is that of education. At notschool.org, academics are experimenting with provision for ‘school refusers’ in order that they may still learn, but from home within a safe and social environment. Mainstream developments such as the AOL Learning channel, where there is online access to teachers available to help with homework and give advice, also create an alternative space in which people can learn.

The government’s current education priorities are to encourage more flexible school days for pupils, parents and teachers. The flexibility enabled through broadband is helping to reinforce a creative ‘learn-anywhere’ culture.

2. Personal support and engagement

Our polling found that 57% of broadband users had researched their own health or that of a friend or relative online. A pilot in Birmingham recently sought to extend the provision made by NHS Direct. Using digital television, callers to the service could see the nurse to whom they were talking on their television screen, together with diagrams and video clips to aid their own self-care or diagnosis. Not only was the service well-used and satisfaction high, NHS Direct found that the quality of communication possible meant that calls became shorter, allowing them to reach more people.

The possibilities presented by broadband – from video streaming to online support groups – have the potential to reduce the distance between citizens and public services. Broadband also has the potential to create confident and engaged patients, at a time when the Department of Health sees encouraging self-care as critical to the future of public health.

3. Community

Taking Neighbourhood Watch as a case study, the research demonstrates how broadband has the potential to empower and invigorate communities. Groups are increasingly using text message alerts, streaming video surveillance and online dialogue to deter crime. In this way, they help to reduce crime and the fear of crime together, building belief among them that they are safe and that they can fight back. In Gloucester, the Brunswick Square Central Lawn Association is using the Internet to target crime in the community through its Neighbourhood Watch initiative.

Broadband could increasingly enable communities to feel empowered to fight crime and tackle the fear of crime and become more resilient as a result.

4. Citizen leadership

As the recent US election showed, broadband is changing the way candidates campaign. We saw how the rise of broadband video and blogging – posting personal content onto the internet – led to a shift from party political broadcasts to party political networks and enabled a deeper kind of democratic conversation.

Could we be about to see a similar impact of broadband on the run-up to our own General Election in Spring 2005? This is particularly crucial with recent turnouts at such a low level in the UK, compared to records set in the US this year.

Some sectors in society have been slow to realise the implications of citizen leadership. Our research looks at the music industry as an example of how broadband encourages creativity and personal empowerment. For too long, the potential for sharing music online has been seen only as a threat and has been missed as an enormous opportunity. Blurring the boundaries between producers and consumers could expand our cultural horizons and reinvigorate British music. The research argues that organisations across the UK would do well to understand the lessons of the music industry and avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

Conclusion

We argue that to understand fully the power of broadband it is incumbent on policy makers, businesses, and community groups to ensure that broadband is at the heart of debate about the way public services are delivered, the way we engage in our communities and the interests we pursue. Our research and the examples we provide suggest that broadband is the catalyst for a social shift – exciting opportunities should not be missed by viewing this shift as a threat, or by failing to recognise its true value.

Broadband’s greatest potential lies in the fact that it enables individuals to design and tailor their interface with society. The once insular and isolated activity of going online is now blossoming into external engagement and a deeper and more personalised relationship between individuals and society that must not be ignored.