Whether it be checking bank balances, catching up on world news, chatting with friends via social media or ordering the weekly shop, for most people logging on to the internet is an integral part of daily life.
However, even in this digital age, for those struggling to make ends meet surfing the worldwide web is a luxury which remains out of reach.
Now, a project being led by researchers at The University of Nottingham is looking at whether an innovative scheme, which allows people on a low income to piggyback on the spare bandwidth of their neighbours, could offer Internet equality for all.
The team, at the University’s Horizon Digital Economy Research centre, is appealing for volunteers from the Bell’s Lane/Cinderhill area of Aspley in Nottingham to take part in a pilot project that will put the technology through its paces and test participants’ use of the service and their attitudes towards the approach.
Dr Murray Goulden, leading the project, said: “This is all about getting people online. The UN has said that Internet access is now a human right and our project reflects that in our modern society it is becoming increasingly difficult to fully participate if you are not online.
“The grand vision is that although we are starting off with a local pilot project this is something that could be rolled out on a national scale — all broadband routers could offer this technology by default.”
The Public Access Wi-Fi Service (PAWS) project will see a small box being fitted alongside the wi-fi routers of volunteer ‘sharers’ which will make up to 2MB of their broadband bandwidth available to ‘citizens’ who do not currently have access to the internet.
The team has chosen to pilot the scheme in Aspley, which has the lowest broadband take up in Nottingham — only around 75% of residents there are online compared to 95% in neighbouring Wollaton. Aspley is one of the poorest areas of the city, and social factors like above-average unemployment mean that some residents are unable to afford the costs of getting online. PAWS hopes that by removing an economic barrier to internet access it can also help to address issues such as unemployment.
The capped 2MB available will not offer enough bandwidth to access sophisticated, data-intensive services such as live streaming music or movies, or accessing online games. However, it will allow ‘citizens’ to log on to basic services, such as completing online job application forms, checking bank accounts, and managing utility bills.
Dr Goulden said: “Their children will be able to access the internet to assist them with school work without having to go to the library or travel to their grandparents, for example.
“In addition, one of the requirements for unemployed people to receive jobseekers allowance is by applying for jobs, which is increasingly done online. Getting to a local library or job centre is not always easy for those people who are less mobile. It is a double whammy as those that can’t afford the internet also lack a car.”
“The Government’s Digital by Default programme is aiming to move public services online and predicts huge cost savings as a result. However, the obvious flaw in this initiative is that the people who generally rely on these public services the most are the groups that are also most unlikely to be online.
“If you can’t get everyone online then it doesn’t work, so by enabling that transition to Digital by Default, PAWS could benefit everyone by saving taxpayers’ money.”
Being excluded from Internet access could also be viewed as a ‘tax’ on those on a low income — for example, those able to access the worldwide web can benefit from significant discounts from utility companies for having an online account and can more effectively manage their budgets by using the internet to do their grocery shopping and find the best price for goods. For those with disabilities, being able to have their shopping delivered could also be a lifeline.
PAWS builds on the widely used technology of virtual private networks (VPN), which is often used to enable employees to access their company’s network from home or when travelling. Once registered with PAWS, ‘citizens’ use a VPN to connect to the Internet via the PAWS router installed in each ‘sharers’ home – this VPN technology encrypts the communications data between their mobile, tablet, or computer and the PAWS server ensuring the communications cannot be accessed by the ‘sharers’ and likewise preventing the ‘citizens’ from accessing any computers on the ‘sharers’ network. Finally, from the PAWS server the connection passes out to the Internet to access the required website or other service.
The team is looking to recruit around 50 ‘sharers’ and 20 ‘citizens’ for a five-month period during this pilot project, which has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Horizon Digital Economy Research.
Each volunteer will be offered a £50 shopping voucher to compensate them for their time. In addition, the sharers will be offered an additional £50 in shopping vouchers as a thank you for sharing a small part of their broadband.
Anyone interested in getting involved can contact the team by texting ‘PAWS’ to +441158241502 (please include +44 so the university phone system recognises your request). Alternatively, email: email@example.com or visit the project website www.publicaccesswifi.org
The PAWS project also involves Dr Richard Mortier from the University’s School of Computer Sciences, Dr Christian Greiffenhagen from the University of Loughborough and student interns Danielle Beaton and Jasmin Stevenson.