A total of 17 public sites in Greater Manchester – including homeless shelters, charities and community centres – are benefiting from free fibre broadband connectivity until 2025 as part of a major digital infrastructure and inclusion programme from Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and Virgin Media Business.
The community sites have been connected as part of the UK’s largest public sector Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) programme, which began in March 2020 and is now reaching completion.
Deeplish Community Centre in Rochdale is one of the sites benefiting from free fibre connectivity. Operations Manager at the centre, Sohail Ahmad, said: “The free fibre broadband at Deeplish Community Centre is improving people’s prospects and breaking down digital exclusion barriers made worse during the pandemic. Without the improved connectivity at our site, many in our community would be locked out of today’s digital society.
“Instead, more than 500 local people can now get online for free at our centre, learning new skills: from online banking, to using digital tools to support the language barrier we have in our community – or even young people visiting the site to complete their homework. Thanks to the programme, we’re seeing improved wellbeing and new prospects for our people.”
GMCA partnered with Virgin Media Business to connect more than 1,500 public sector sites across the region with 2,700km of new fibreoptic broadband infrastructure as part of the LFFN programme. This has included over 150 children’s centres, 97 school sites and 70 libraries.
The deal also included a number of bold investments in social value initiatives that support Greater Manchester’s Digital Blueprint and help tackle digital exclusion across the region – as many as 1.2m residents in Greater Manchester could be excluded in some way from accessing the benefits digital brings. These initiatives included providing full fibre broadband free of charge to Deeplish Community Centre and 16 other community sites.
As well as connecting 1,500 plus public sector sites to a full-fibre network, the programme has provided significant social and economic benefits in the region. This includes exceeding GMCA’s local employment target, with an average 78% of the LFFN workforce based in Greater Manchester – bringing £19.7m-worth of economic value to the local area (direct and indirect) in just two years. Since the programme began, Virgin Media Business has also taken on 38 new Greater Manchester-based apprentices, running ahead of the original apprenticeship targets it set at launch.
Cllr Eamonn O’Brien, Leader of Bury Council and GMCA Lead for Education, Skills, Work, Apprenticeships & Digital said “In Greater Manchester, we’re ensuring everyone, whatever their age, location or situation, can benefit from the opportunities digital brings.
“I’m encouraged to see digital infrastructure being used to directly benefit our communities. This programme has set a standard and a legacy for industry, public sector and communities working together on meaningful change and towards fixing the digital divide, as we equip the region with the infrastructure it needs to become a world class digital city region.”
Mike Smith, Large Enterprise & Public Sector Director at Virgin Media O2 Business said: “Providing the infrastructure to connect so many public buildings in Greater Manchester to a fast, reliable and accessible broadband network has been a landmark project for us. Today, digital connectivity is not just a nice to have, it’s an essential part of the way we live and work. It’s been wonderful to see the social impact the Local Full Fibre Networks programme has had on people across the city-region – and we’re looking forward to continuing to tackle digital exclusion in local communities as we plan out the programme’s legacy.”
The LFFN programme has been a catalyst for Virgin Media O2 Business to make further commitments towards societal value within local communities, exploring how private and public sector organisations can work together to address the levelling up agenda at community level, and promote digital inclusion. The organisation will continue to work with GMCA on upcoming pilots addressing digital skills and confidence and other initiatives to help to reduce the digital divide across the region.
The LFFN programme has been the result of close partnership working between Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Virgin Media Business, Greater Manchester’s local authorities, Fire & Rescue Services and Transport for Greater Manchester – and was also backed by millions of pounds of funding from the government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman said: “Our £19 million investment has funded hundreds of faster internet connections across Greater Manchester to put public services in the digital fast lane, so they deliver more for communities and encourage more broadband firms to roll-out fibre networks across the region.
“We have upgraded thousands of schools, libraries and hospitals across the UK to first class broadband fit for the future and through our £5 billion Project Gigabit we’re making sure rural areas don’t miss out either.”
With most of the sites now connected to the full fibre network, a wide range of digital transformation and smart city projects can begin. This is part of a wider drive to bring digital infrastructure investment to Greater Manchester, which has seen GMCA and Greater Manchester local authorities streamlining regulations and inspection work. The work has also laid the foundations for upcoming initiatives, such as Greater Manchester One Network.