LARGE swathes of Leeds’ public buildings are set to get permanent free internet access in the New Year as the council gets ready to truly embrace the digital age - and use it to forge a better economic future for the city and its people.
Major buildings such as the Town Hall, the City Museum and the Art Gallery - as well as all the city’s libraries, community, sports and children’s centres - will have free wi-fi access by January.
In total, 103 public buildings will have free internet by the start of 2015.
The move follows trailblazing work which has seen Leeds become one of a handful selected for the Super Connected Cities programme. Leeds already has free public wi-fi in Millennium Square and Briggate as a result.
City leaders hope the move will help fight poverty and unemployment by encouraging people to visit council services and resources,
It is especially designed to help those poorer households which may still not have any form of internet access at home, the city’s hard-to-reach “digitally excluded” groups.
A spokesman for Leeds City Council said: “Getting Leeds online is one of our top priorities and the council has already rolled out free public wi-fi on Millennium Square and Briggate. Discussions are currently ongoing to extend that to other areas.
“The Super Connected Cities programme is allowing us to roll out free public wi-fi in Leeds City Council buildings including libraries, the Town Hall, Leeds City Museum and Leeds Art Gallery.
“This service is being extended to children’s centres and sports centres and our ambition is that free public wi-fi will be available in 103 council buildings by January.
“It is important that we help as many people as possible in Leeds to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities that internet access provides. Not only will this help them search for information, jobs and leisure opportunities, it will also help support local businesses and boost the economy by giving firms more chance to connect with their customers.”
A report to the council’s Sustainable Economy and Culture Scrutiny Board, an internal watchdog which is leading an inquiry into the plans, says the move is designed to work alongside the Department of Work and Pensions’ new “digital by default” approach to services for jobseekers.
This will see 100 new computers with free web access installed across the city’s eight job centres.
The report adds: “There is a need to improve the position of those groups most digitally excluded.
“In order to achieve this, the council and partners must consider different ways of promoting the benefits of being online, not only for the purposes of securing and sustaining employment, but increasingly to access a range of public services including welfare support”.
The report points to research carried out in 2012 which found that the highest proportion of households with no access to the Internet were in Cottingley, Lincoln Green, Chapeltown, Gipton, Seacroft, Burley, Hawksworth, some of the city’s poorest and high-unemployment areas.
The report adds: “Despite the pace in rollout of universal wi-fi since this research was undertaken, there are groups that remain disengaged as they are not defined merely by geography but by other indicators of social exclusion - income, age, disability. It is not surprising therefore that these neighbourhoods overlay some of the city’s most deprived communities.”