The broadband outages suffered by several Post Offices around the United Kingdom, which also crippled computerised systems (e.g. pension payments, council tax bills, parcel processing etc.), have highlighted how dependent we are becoming on internet access and how little margin for error exists at some of our most vital institutions.
Most recently the residents of West Butterwick, a small civil parish village in North Lincolnshire (England), found that they could not access vital payment and billing services after their local Post Office on North Street was left without a broadband connection for five whole days. As a result the only thing it could do was sell stamps (here).
Maggie Wootton, West Butterwick Resident, said:
“There’s a real problem with the outreach Post Office. They have not got a broadband connection again. A lot of people in the village do not have transport and some elderly residents are not able to get public transport to get to Scunthorpe.
It’s happened before and when it does happen they cannot even send parcels out. All the Post Office can do is sell stamps. We have got pensioners who have to get their pensions using a card. It’s affecting people … young mums use the outreach facility to get their money and elderly people use it to get their pension.”
A similar situation arose at the Post Office in Bellingham (Northumberland, England) over Christmas when an apparent mistake by BT, which had installed a new internet service in the buildings upstairs flat, resulted in the local division being left without a broadband connection on both of its phone lines for eleven days (here).
The Bellingham situation soon became so serious that the local sub-postmistress, Wendy Telfer, even offered to lend her own money to any “really desperate” customers.
Wendy Telfer, Bellingham’s sub-Postmistress, said:
“Whatever goes through the system I get paid on. Put nothing in, I get nothing back. In this day and age, you know, it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
It is usually quite well understood that any telecoms service, especially broadband because it’s so vulnerable to a multitude of unpredictable variables in its environment (e.g. bad weather, poor wiring, road work mistakes), will at some point fail and need fixing. Sometimes even having a backup connection, as in the Bellingham situation, isn’t enough to completely avoid the problem.
Unfortunately when things do go wrong, especially if the connection isn’t fixed in a timely manner, then it usually doesn’t take long before the related problems begin to spiral out of control and a dangerous situation develops. Problems like this often hit the most vulnerable in society, such as pensioners, more than most. Simple things, such as having enough money to pay for food, are soon put at risk.
In urban areas there’s usually an alternative, such as Mobile Broadband, but in many rural areas this simply doesn’t exist and the coverage claims of most mobile providers often appear to be laughable. But more than that it highlights how dependent we have become on internet connectivity. Perhaps most surprising of all is how there often appears to be no manual alternative should that vital link fail.
Both the current and previous governments have put a lot of effort into getting people online, which is to be commended. However it’s clearly vital that there exist an alternative for when that connectivity inevitably fails. Perhaps this is something that the government should also be considering alongside their current digital strategy.