Interview: Tristan Wilkinson of Go ON UK

By Hannah Langston
Wednesday, November 5th 2014

Tristan Wilkinson talks to about why 2Mb broadband for all is better than superfast, why teaching digital skills will always be a challenge and how schools and hospitals can help fight for the cause.

Do you find that when you’re trying to teach digital skills and the benefits of being online, accessibility is a problem?

In any room there will be someone who sticks there hand up and says I cant get it - that is going to be a problem for a long time.

A lot of people in increasingly rural areas can get it, but it keeps going down.

So that is an issue, but it is becoming less and less of an issue.

And I think the one thing for that is that government needs to balance its focus on superfast with universal.

Again we’ve got a government that’s absolutely focused on superfast when we need everybody to be able to have a minimum of 2Mb and rely on 2Mb then we can go off to fit superfast.

It seems the wrong way round to me.

I think they can look at subsidies for other technologies – satellite and things like that – so there are some very rural properties where laying down cable just is not cost effective.

So why isn’t the government freeing up subsidies for people to use their satellite dishes to get online as well.

Do you think people might be put off getting online if they’re told to use alternatives such as satellite?

Not necessarily. It comes down to need and motivation.

The connectivity is the easy bit, that’s like the road isn’t it. If I know I need to be online, if I’m motivated to do that, whether I do it through a fixed line or a satellite that’s kind of a secondary thought.

The number one thing is the desire to get online, that’s the big step. Solving our connectivity should be quite an easy step in that process.

Is there a difference in peoples desire to get online in rural areas as opposed to areas with good connectivity?

I think it varies. I think the motivation is often far greater because of isolation.

Things like a snow effect where maybe you’re isolated for 3 or 4 days and not being able to work or communicate or do your shopping or do what you need to do.

All of a sudden you realize how important these historic connections are.

I live in a very rural area with just 50 houses, I couldn’t live there without decent internet. I’ve got two young children, they’d go stir crazy.

Where I live there are villages have very, very poor connectivity and that’s reflected in the house prices. There’s about a 10-20% premium on the villages that have got good connectivity as opposed to poor connectivity.

Imagine buying a brand new car and not having electric windows.

Buying a car with all the latest technology and it doesn’t have the one thing I’m going to use on a daily basis. It just doesn’t make any sense.

It seems that it’s not just individuals that need to be educated about getting online it’s also institutions: hospitals for example. Why is there such poor Wi-Fi in hospitals?

I think unfortunately that’s financial. I think unfortunately what’s happened is that over the past few years because of the pressure on funding we’ve now got these bedside entertainment systems that cost you £5 a day to access and the hospital gets a percentage of that.

If everyone brings in there own tablet and accesses the Wi-Fi for nothing that costs the hospital.

The whole thing about it interfering with the equipment is absolutely rubbish; they work on different frequencies so that’s not the case at all.

It’s about the finance in the same way as you used to be able to park for nothing and now you can’t.

I think one of the big problems is the amount of time it takes any organisation, whether that is a hospital or a school system.

By the time it’s thought about implementing something, thought about the policy, done a risk assessment, run a pilot, evaluated the pilot, the technology has changed.

So that whole process might take them 18 months to two years. Whatever they were thinking about doing 18 months ago has gone. So the pace of change is so rapid, it’s really difficult.

I used to work for a technology company and 90% of their revenue came from products that didn’t exist at the start of that year. That’s a big technology company with lots of money.

How are small local authorities, a school or a hospital keep pace of that change? I don’t know how you do it. It’s really hard.

So is the key to plan ahead as much as is possible?

The key is to accept the consumerisation of things.

As individuals and households we’re quite happy to go out and spend £100 on something then two years later replace it because we’ve decided that its lost value to us.

I think a lot of what people buy within the working environment is overly complex, it’s been engineered to a very high standard of security which might not be necessary in that environment.

I think what mainstream consumer solutions could be applicable in that sort of situation.

How will Go ON’s role change in the next few years as we see the UK reach 95% broadband coverage?

I think the digital skills challenge is always going to be there.

One of the things that is happening now is happening in households that do have a high level of digital skills.

The difference in generations is opening up. My generation grew up using Microsoft products such as Excel, Word etc. those sorts of things, so I’m fairly digitally literate, but if I compare myself to my children who are digital natives they use technology in a completely different way.

So I think this is a debate that’s going to be around for many, many years because bits of society are moving at different speeds.

One of the things I think we’re on the verge of seeing is the impact of the digital generation coming into the workplace.

They’re not going to accept a 9-5 Monday to Friday structure. They’re going to expect a different working pattern.

They’re going to be doing their emails at seven in the morning while they’re having their breakfast and have a two-hour lunch break so they can go jogging.

I think that we’ve only just started seeing how disruptive technology can be.

When your children’s generation grows up will there still be a need for digital skills or will it shift slightly?

I think it will shift. I think technology will become more embedded, internet of things and so on.

But I would be very concerned if we ever got to the point where people lost the desire to interrogate the data and understand it, so when I get my smart meter for my electricity and water I have the ability to know data has been shared about me.

I think that we’re always going to need a level of digital literacy so we understand what’s being done to us in our name whether that’s government or businesses or whatever.

There’s always going to be a need to get people to a certain level where they’re able to participate fully in society.

What’s the role that schools should play in all of this?

I think two things – one is to motivate and inspire kids and to facilitate that journey.

I don’t think it’s necessary that they should be using technology as an enabler and not teaching about technology.

Very few kids want to know how stuff works; they just use it as a tool.

I think the most exciting use of technology in classrooms is when kids use technology to make subjects that they were otherwise uninterested in interesting and interactive, that’s the opportunity.