Homeless shelters, schools and local people are benefiting from a multimillion-pound investment in Greater Manchester, in particular from narrowing the digital divide, says a new report published by Virgin Media Business in a social value programme with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA).
The social value programme began after the GMCA commissioned Virgin Media Business to connect more than 1,500 public sites to full-fibre networks in Greater Manchester as part of the UK’s largest Local Full Fibre Networks Programme (LFFN) in 2020. This was said to have delivered economic benefits worth £11.8m in the first year alone.
The Tackling digital inequality in Greater Manchester report set out to provide an update on the positive impact the business has achieved in Greater Manchester through its social value programme, as well as its plans for the next four years. The programme included a number of investments in social value initiatives that supported Greater Manchester’s Digital Blueprint, including a commitment from Virgin Media Business to directly create 20 apprenticeships based in Greater Manchester, as well as investing in digital and science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills for young people.
The report focuses on a set of key aims – creating a digital talent pipeline, empowering people with the digital skills they need to access online services, helping Greater Manchester become a global digital influencer, and tackling homelessness – and highlights the significant benefits delivered to date after the business won a major contract to connect sites across the city-region to a new full-fibre network.
During the height of lockdown, Virgin Media Business supported the Greater Manchester Technology Fund with a donation that provided 567 schoolchildren with digital kit bundles to ensure students in Greater Manchester at risk of digital exclusion could continue learning when schools were closed. Despite the pandemic, Virgin Media Business and GMCA have connected 15 homeless shelters, community centres and charities to its network since the project began and is providing free connectivity for local people, with six more sites due to be connected this year.
Community leaders are said to have reported real benefits for local people, who can use the free connectivity in community spaces to access online services such as banking and GP appointments, and have more opportunities to develop digital skills and learn how to use the internet safely. It has also given younger people more places to get online and complete their school work.
Such capability is vital given the digital divide that exists in the UK, particularly in cities. After massive investment this year by the likes of BT and Virgin Media, and with the altnet sector in full swing, the UK’s gigabit broadband industry has gone from strength to strength, reaching nearly 40% of UK homes. But, as highlighted in research from Ofcom, a stubborn digital divide persists.
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Alongside the achievements to date, the report also outlines how, over the course of the partnership, Virgin Media Business is committed to creating 50 apprenticeship roles, using an additional 4,000 employee volunteering hours to support community projects and helping schools to improve their digital services. The partnership with GMCA has created new job opportunities and supported the community with digital skills programmes.
More than 80% of the current LFFN workforce is from the Greater Manchester area, outperforming the initial local employment rate target of 50%, and Virgin Media Business has funded three digital skills programmes with the Prince’s Trust and GMCA.
“Our work in Greater Manchester is not only transforming connectivity across the region, but is helping to transform lives for the better too,” said Jo Bertram, managing director of business and wholesale at Virgin Media O2. “In partnership with the GMCA, we are supercharging communities and supporting those most at risk of digital exclusion.”
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham added: “In Greater Manchester, we have a £5bn digital ecosystem and we are putting people at the heart of our digital ambitions. We are well known for doing things differently and collaboration is integral to what we do.
“This programme has brought local and central government together for a common goal, enhancing our digital capacity and helping our public sector sites to continue delivering the best possible services to residents across our city-region. It highlights the possibilities when private and public sector work side by side to level up our communities – from towns and cities to our most rural places and spaces, aligning digital ambitions to ensure that anyone, whatever their age, location or situation, can benefit from the opportunities that digital brings.”