Free broadband for Leeds homes as council bids to galvanise £45m digital revolution

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THOUSANDS of disadvantaged people in Leeds could be handed free home broadband and tablet computers as city bosses bid to boost the digital economy and galvanise an electronic revolution.

Leeds City Council is launching a brand new drive to equip Leeds’s thousands of “digitally excluded” adults with basic online skills.

It is estimated the campaign - to be called “100% Digital Leeds” - could help generate £45m for the city’s economy over the next decade, and more than £4m in the first year alone.

According to research, there are about 90,000 adults in the city who can be described as lacking basic digital skills.

Although many of them may have data access via their phone and can do basics like using social media, a huge number of people are thought to be slipping through the net when it comes to being able to use other online services and opportunities like job hunting.

Now, a major inquiry by a cross-party panel of councillors has come up with a list of 14 recommendations as part of an action plan to get the city blazing a digital inclusion trail.

Plans in the pipeline include equipping 800 homes in Cottingley with free state-of-the-art superfast broadband infrastructure, and the expansion of a tablet computer lending scheme. If successful - and subject to funding - both pilots could be rolled out across the city.

A new report to the council’s City Development panel said that “as well as benefiting the economy, the financial benefits to individuals as they become digitally included” have been numerous.

It said that digital upskilling had proved invaluable to “people who have previously had low levels of digital literacy and have started to use the Internet frequently”.

Councillor Paul Truswell, who chairs the City Development panel, has now called for the creation of a major new piece of research which can examine in further detail the extent of the city’s digital divide.

He said this would be used to “demonstrate the case for pursuing and dedicating more resources to digital inclusion”, adding: “It is really critical to get it right and demonstrate the value.”

A recent meeting of the panel at Leeds Civic Hall was told that one of the key issues was a need to improve the digital infrastructure in parts of the city where “choice is limited”.

The panel heard that the council is continuing to support the West Yorkshire superfast broadband programme, and it aims to have 98 per cent of premises connected by 2019.

It is hoped that connecting the remaining two percent of properties will be funded through a mixture of European and Local Growth funding, which the city is currently bidding for.

Council teams are also working with the Leeds City Region local enterprise partnership (LEP) to lobby Government for more funding for improving regional connectivity.

The City Development panel heard that Cottingley was expected to become the focus of a major 18-month pilot offering free connectivity to council and social housing tenants.

Across Leeds, 167 public buildings now offer free to access public Wi-Fi, including libraries and community hub buildings.

However the panel was told: “It is a much wider issue.

“People may have data and connectivity and they may be able to send a photo on Facebook, but when it comes to applying for a job online, not a clue.

“Doing some of the stuff that will increase their attainment and outcomes and improve their quality of life, those digital skills are where they’re lacking.”

The tablet lending scheme - which is hoped to be in place by the end of March - would initially start with just 60 loans.

However council officers told councillors: “We would like to see 500, 1,000, 10,000 tablets, it’s all resource dependent”.

The council is now drawing up a new “digital inclusion” strategy, and a 100% Digital Leeds board is expected to be ratified imminently.

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