Organisers of project giving free internet to Sheffield council estate hope scheme will be national blueprint
Aimed at tackling digital poverty, the Dryden project is the first of its kind in the UK, and will see 360 homes at Sheffield’s Dryden estate in Southey Green supplied with free access to the internet.
The project is being delivered in partnership with technology entrepreneur David Richards with support from ward councillor Jayne Dunn, Sheffield City Council, Voluntary Action Sheffield, Lloyd Samuels of SY-NC (Sheffield Youth Neighbourhoods and Communities), Pine Media, Smoothwall and the Digital Poverty Alliance.
David Richards, CEO and chairman of WANdisco plc, said: “If you want to apply for a job - and deal with social security and health care - you simply have to have access to a very reliable internet connection.
“We wouldn't deny someone sanitation because they can't afford it, yet we do with the internet.”
Mr Richards noted that the idea stemmed from a previous project in which the David and Jane Richards Family Foundation, of which Mr Richards is a co-founder, gave 15,000 laptops to children who needed them during the pandemic after partnering with the Sheffield Star.
“We devised laptops for kids, but when it came to connectivity, it was a huge problem, and the conclusion we came to was that we really need connectivity in everybodies home,” he added.
Mr Richards noted that two other towns had already shown interest in the scheme, including another town in Yorkshire and one in the South East.
The project will also be the subject of a major study by University of Sheffield researchers, who will study its socio-economic results.
A group of community leaders from the estate will be given control of what can be accessed through the free internet service, meaning that residents are able to decide what is accessible, ensuring the service is child-friendly.
Organisers of the Dryden project are also hoping to set up online community forums in which residents can contact the local council, as well as providing access to doctors, schools and church services on a Sunday.
An optional tariff for residents has also been proposed, in which those that feel able to pay for the internet at a reduced rate can opt in to do so.
This money would then be put into a community bank, which residents are then able to use in ways they see fit.
Lloyd Samuels of SY-NC said: “One thing we saw over lockdown is that mental health declined, and in spaces like this, that is really visible.
“This is about giving them back power, it's about saying: ‘how can we support you out of this situation, and how can we empower you to then turn round and help your mate that is in the same situation? So you can do it together, and as a community you all can rise.’”
South Yorkshire’s Mayor, Oliver Coppard said: “Increasingly, services are only delivered online - yet people who don't have access to the internet don't have those opportunities and can't take advantage of some of those services.
“We want everybody to have those opportunities - and most of all we want communities like Southey Green to have these opportunities - that's why we started here.
“And If we can pioneer this here in South Yorkshire, then why can't we look at the success here and deliver it elsewhere?”