Locked Down AND Locked Out
Proper connectivity is no virus
The portrayal of Covid-19 as ‘a great leveller’ was debunked soon after its initial outbreak. Even from an extremely narrow medical viewpoint, that all bodies were equally at risk, it was very soon apparent that vulnerabilities were not shared uniformly across the entire population.
First the medics recognised the range of susceptibilities — the old, the underlying health issues, the frail and unfit — and then socio-economic commentators looked more carefully at deeper social issues — poverty, diet, housing, education, racial prejudices. Even some politicians and parts of the media woke up to the exposure of these underlying causes.
But that awakening, those realisations back in early April, are only now (in June) being fully grasped. The extent of the UK’s exposure and lack of preparedness has still not been fully accepted or studied and properly mapped. We are still a long way short of remedial policies and the after-maths are already clouded by vested interests in blame avoidance. Truths and Reconciliations will take time and massive effort.
In one arena, however, there is broad consensus. Well before the virus struck, the frailties of the UK’s digital infrastructure were so obvious that even incoming Prime Minister Johnson vowed to push the UK faster towards Full Fibre. But Covid-19 shows that this is not just an issue with the networks’ technologies and capacities.
Muddling through, ‘getting by’, with a half-hearted approach to network modernisation has long been a consequence of policy over-reliance on ‘free market’ window-dressing of competition — the same old cornflakes in marginally differentiated branded boxes: two decades of heavy investment in marketing services that are not super or fast or fibre or broad but designed to return faster and greater profits for shareholders than any plan to deliver a responsive Full Fibre service.
[Parental Warning: a technical bit — but don’t worry, it’ll not strain your brain for long]
Services that do not transit data symmetrically (at roughly similar speeds in both directions) are inevitably poor when system processing power is remote. Systems where response times are slow — where your keyboard actions seem to take forever to show up on your screen — are often far worse if your requests or instructions take ages to arrive. Almost every TV news bulletin demonstrates the effects of slow ‘ping times’ (AKA latency) and limited capacity — frozen screens and distorted voices. Very few connections can work at the speed of light because the signals are often squeezed through copper lines and cables.
Latency has for decades been a drag on social and economic development. Around the world, places that were the first to deploy full fibre to premises have huge economic advantages — often providing the right environment for innovations like, say, Skype or multi-user games, or remote medical consultations, or new business investment in distant regions. And those left behind muttered about their digital deficit. But Covid-19 now shows more clearly than decades of protests, that under-investment (mostly in the interest of protecting outmoded technology from becoming redundant) has devastating social consequences.
Many of us have found the Internet to be a lifesaver. Under this Lockdown, Internet usage has exploded — not just with home-working and video calls but also with greater reliance on supermarket delivery systems, remote access to GP’s, on-line schooling and e-borrowing from libraries. All very useful IF you are connected and digitally dextrous.
Applying for welfare support online is easier if you have the kit, the connection and the know-how — capacities that are less likely to be available for those most needing support.
On-line learning can be brilliant for many, but not if the only device is one old mobile phone shared between three kids on a ‘pay as you go contract’.
Podcasts can help relieve the tedium of long locked-down days if you are able to afford the access and know where to find them.
The foodbank may be able to deliver life-saving supplies and volunteers can fetch medication — but not for those who have never learned to make the connections.
Sadly, in the UK hundreds of thousands of households are both locked down and locked out of these facilities.
That is why the local voluntary work of the Good Things Foundation is so valuable. Their work would be so much easier — so much less necessary — if everyone had network connections designed for 21st Century work. But campaigners for Full Fibre have so often gloried in the technical details. People keen to extoll the wonders of technology should redirect their enthusiasm towards the things that Full Fibre enables — education, health, welfare, democracy, commerce, community engagement, sustainability and resilience.
During this pandemic, I hope you are coping well with being locked down. But, dear reader, you are not locked out.