Drive to bridge digital divide boosted with £800,000 in funding

Paula Waggoner is helping more people to get online while volunteering as a digital buddy with the Nidderdale Plus team.

Efforts to tackle the digital divide in North Yorkshire will see hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on a range of measures after the cost of living crisis has compounded the issue.

North Yorkshire Council is overseeing a programme of work to help ensure more people across the county have online access and the skills needed to adapt to the digital age in the 21st century.

Evidence has emerged that pressures on household budgets amid the high rates of inflation and the dramatic rises in the cost of living have meant that a digital divide is becoming more pronounced.

Many people are now unable to afford the technology needed to get online, and there are concerns that they are not learning the necessary skills to embrace the digital era.

Research by the Citizens Advice charity has shown that people are cutting back on the cost of connectivity, such as data plans and broadband. A study revealed a million people nationally disconnected their broadband last year due to financial pressures.

More than £800,000 in funding from the Government’s UK Shared Prosperity Fund is now set to be allocated to support residents in North Yorkshire who lack the skills, confidence or infrastructure to get online.

The funding will help voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations to access resources and training to become ‘digital hubs’ to improve connectivity, support volunteers to become ‘digital buddies’ and increase engagement with communities to use technology.

North Yorkshire Council’s leader, Cllr Carl Les, said: “We are acutely aware of the need to ensure that communities across the whole of North Yorkshire are given online access so that they can thrive in the modern digital age.

“A great deal of work has already been undertaken, but we are committed to making sure everyone has access to the technology and skills that they need. The money under the Shared Prosperity Fund will be invaluable to help us achieve these aims, and we will continue to work with our partners to bring digital connectivity across North Yorkshire.”

Ahead of the annual Get Online Week, which starts on October 16 and is a national campaign by the Good Things Foundation that works to bridge the digital divide, a concerted effort is under way to provide as much support for communities in North Yorkshire.

North Yorkshire Council is calling on more volunteers to become digital buddies to help people to get online with support via community and voluntary organisations and the county’s libraries.

Among those who are volunteering already is 56-year-old Paula Waggoner, who moved to North Yorkshire from Colorado with her husband, Dave, and son, Dennis, two years ago due to work commitments. When an opportunity to volunteer as a digital buddy came up, she jumped at the chance to join the Nidderdale Plus team.

“A digital buddy was not something I had ever thought I would be doing with my limited technical ability,” she said. “But I decided I could use my own experience of using devices to pass on some skills to those that are struggling – empowering people to do things we take for granted.”

A website, North Yorkshire Connect, has been expanded to provide information about organisations that can help with online access, including details of libraries across the county which provide support to the public. Since April 1, a total of 2,613 hours of IT support has been given in libraries, with 518 hours in August alone.

A council scheme that provides new homes for unwanted laptops and other devices is also providing a lifeline for residents who might not otherwise be able to get online. The Reboot service has helped hundreds of people since it was set up in 2021, but the scheme needs more donations to help to meet demand.

Success stories include a resident who was having trouble making and keeping up to date with her NHS appointments and another who was in financial difficulty and received help to update her curriculum vitae, receiving a job offer soon after.

To be considered for use in the scheme, devices must be in working order and under five years old, with password protection and any personal items removed. They can then be handed in to any of the county’s libraries from where suitable candidates are found.

A roll-out of free internet access in 20 town centres has been co-ordinated by the council to allow greater online access for the public. Statistics have shown that there are now about 70,000 users of the service, which launched in 2021, each week.

And a fourth phase of a multi-million pound scheme to enhance broadband speeds is also under way to connect properties in some of the most technologically isolated areas of the county. The next stage of the Superfast North Yorkshire programme is targeting the most challenging areas of the county where it has previously not been viable to provide the improved internet connections.

The fourth phase of the programme is set to be completed by March next year, with a total of 15,830 premises benefitting from improved internet connections. Of those properties, 84 per cent are in rural locations. By the end of phase four, more than 200,000 premises will have improved broadband access since the overall project began in July 2012. During the project, more than £67 million has been invested in improving internet connectivity.

The council is celebrating the difference that volunteers make by sharing stories from across the county as part of the Team North Yorkshire campaign.

More information about volunteering is available at www.northyorks.gov.uk/TeamNorthYorkshire online.

More information about getting online is available by visiting libraries or North Yorkshire Connect at northyorkshireconnect.org.uk/, while details of the Reboot scheme can be accessed at rebootny.co.uk.

Information of Get Online Week, including resources to help people lacking digital experience, is available at uk.getonlineweek.com.