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Renewed efforts to bridge a digital divide

The network is a partnership between Manchester City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) and communications company Arqiva, and is seen as another key development in helping to cement the city’s place as one of the major digital centres in Europe.

The service provides up to 30 minutes free access and unlimited access to sites such as those run by Visit Manchester and TfGM. Later in the year coverage will spread to other parts of the city, as well as district shopping centres.

The council hope that improved internet access for Manchester residents, businesses and visitors will promote social inclusion and economic growth. However, although figures from telecoms watchdog Ofcom suggest almost half of all UK adults own a smartphone, there is still concern that because the service requires 3G or 4G technology, it has done little to close the digital divide, with services only open to those that can afford them.

“Back in 2008, Manchester stated its ambition to have ubiquitous WiFi and saw this as a way of tackling the digital divide, as well as boosting the digital sector in the sector,” says Shaun Fensom, Secretary of the trade association, Manchester Digital.

“In order for Manchester to be a truly successful digital city we want it to be successful for all its citizens and not just the digerati…  That’s a big issue for a city like Manchester – how do you spread the opportunities that broadband gives you, and involve everyone in becoming one of the world’s top 20 digital cities?”

"How do you spread the opportunities that broadband gives you, and involve everyone in becoming one of the world’s top 20 digital cities?”

In both France and Finland, access to the internet has now been declared a Human Right but although Fensom believes the city has a proud history of tackling these kind of social issues, more innovation and creative thinking is needed to find ways to spread the service into areas of the city where people often lack the domestic phone lines needed to bring Broadband into their homes, let alone the latest smart phones.

Yet he is also upbeat. “Digital is absolutely vital for Manchester’s future. It’s a sector that has continued to grow throughout the recession,” he says.

The city has consolidated its position as the UK’s second digital city and its role as the key internet hub outside of London. The mysterious Project Tomorrow continues to intrigue too, with Apple now rumoured to be involved in a secretive initiative which promises ground-breaking technology for  local firms to explore and access business solutions.

The long-awaited pilot of a Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) network along The Corridor (Oxford Road) will also be up and running by the end of the year, says Fensom. It will offer a “Rolls Royce fibre network” on to which other businesses, as well as community groups, will be able to bolt their own networks.

Fensom also believes that initiatives such as Broadband For the Rural North (B4RN) could work in the city. The initiative involves communities rolling out their own fibre networks, with residents making a small investment to pay for it through a local co-operative. And this could act as a another step towards universal Internet access in the city.

“Given that there’s not that much money to throw at this problem, that kind of creative thinking is crucial,” he says. “There are other ways of doing things than just pouring state money in, or waiting for the private sector to do something. And Manchester is always keen to look at that sort of innovation.”