Wireless network project bridges digital divide

8 Jul 2005

The Dublin community radio station NEARfm is involved in a project that uses wireless networking to help senior citizens learn how to use the internet and email.

The scheme is aimed at sheltered housing projects in the north Dublin area. A pilot version of the training has been completed at Glin Centre in Bonnybrook, Coolock. Other centres including St Luke’s in Kilmore are on the list to receive training. The training, which takes place one morning per week for six weeks, is usually held in the common room of the sheltered housing project. The trainers set up laptops for the users, who are all given Dublin.ie email addresses. The project is funded by the City of Dublin Vocational Educational Committee (CDVEC).

A NEARfm van equipped with a wireless antenna goes to sheltered housing projects and takes a broadband internet feed from the radio spectrum and then routes this signal to where the training takes place.

The project is aimed at addressing the so-called ‘digital divide’, allowing people who might not otherwise have access to the internet to learn about it and use it in their daily lives. The training focuses on helping people to pay their bills online or to access information such as pension rights and entitlements. “It’s for people who wouldn’t have access to broadband and who won’t come in to formal education centres,” explained Ciaran Murray, project manager for the Community Media Further Education Project, which is a partnership between the CDVEC and NEARfm’s owner The Media Co-op.

According to Murray, the advantage for the CDVEC is that it hopes some of the participants will be sufficiently interested in the initial training to want to take it further. Part of the organisation’s remit is to reach people who have been marginalised from education. “That’s where we come in,” he explained. “The average schoolteacher can’t run around in a van and bring the internet to people.”

The van has a telescope aerial that extends 15m in the air, allowing it to get a broadband signal from NEARfm’s base station at Colaiste Dhulaigh in Coolock. The base station covers most of the north east of the city, including Artane, Beaumont, Clonshaugh, Coolock, Darndale, Edenmore, Harmonstown, Killester and parts of Raheny. “We hope to put another couple of nodes that get the radius up to three miles, which as the crow flies covers a fair amount of Dublin,” said Murray.

At the moment, Media Co-op provides the training but then has to take the computers away after the training is over. However, Dublin City Council is supporting the scheme and has said that if the demand is there, it will install computers with an internet connection in the common rooms of premises such as community sheltered housing projects.

“We don’t abandon people, we come back once a week [after the training course]. In the longer term, we can’t do that so what we’re hoping is that the County Council would buy the equipment – for example, 10 computers – and put one in each sheltered housing project,” said Murray. It is hoped that word of mouth will help to spread news of the scheme among senior citizens, building demand for the training.

By Gordon Smith