Digital classrooms. Virtual museums. Sports events streaming from home. Councillors making major local decisions by Skype. It’s not just work meetings, exercise classes and retail that have shifted entire operations online amid the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.
In fact, it’s difficult to think of a sector that hasn’t been forced to adapt almost overnight. In East Anglia, we’re helping businesses and residents harness new technology and digital innovation by rolling out Hyperfast full-fibre broadband to rural and remote areas – and here we outline just three sectors that stand to gain in the ‘new normal’ – the new digital normal.
The sudden mass closure of schools nationwide earlier this year, and current local lockdowns, have left many parents and carers facing the unexpected position of becoming home-school teachers. University students are discussing Chaucer and Computer Science with lecturers on Zoom. Training providers are offering free courses for young and old on Microsoft Teams, with on-demand resources and one-to-one live mentorship.
Parents and carers, teachers, lecturers, tutors – all deserve applause for tackling the unprecedented situation with creativity and resilience. They are doing their best to recreate classrooms and lecture halls in living rooms and bedrooms but are in many cases hampered by poor digital connectivity – exacerbated by the nation’s inaugural mass all-day trial of working, learning and accessing home entertainment at home. The spirit is willing but the signal is not.
There are bundles of free educational apps and tools, from YouTube Kids (child-friendly explanations of science, nature and space) to Duolingo and Kahoot! (learn a language and win a quiz), but the broadband is frustratingly found wanting.
The honourable free distribution of laptops and tablets to the country’s most disadvantaged pupils to help make remote education accessible for all could be in vain if the right infrastructure is not in place. Around 88% of the nation can only access copper-based networks forged by the Victorians.
Arts and Culture
The show must go on, so the maxim goes. But faced with a nebulous future of social distancing, self-isolation triggered by NHS contact-tracing apps, and intermittent lockdowns for local hotspots of coronavirus outbreaks, how can they?
Those involved in the arts and culture sector are renowned for creativity – and it is precisely this imagination fused with digital innovation underpinned by strong and reliable internet, for both the host and end user, that is keeping events going in the new virtual world.
For example, Europe’s largest air museum IWM Duxford in Cambridgeshire is sharing unique and personal stories, from spies to submarines and life on the Home Front, from its extraordinary collections through new digital programming whilst its doors are closed.
New virtual tours of its American Air Museum and Churchill War Room are also on offer. “We hope our new digital programme will give families, teachers and carers a unique way to engage with history,” museum spokesperson Susie Thornberry told the Cambridge Times.
Elsewhere in the region, Colchester Castle launched a new distance-learning platform, Museums From Home, to help educate children about the town’s past with online activities and virtual learning.
Dressing up Roman soldiers and “cracking the cypher” are on offer at the click of a button. “Through simple and fun tasks, families can complement any home learning they are doing,” the EADT was told.
Staying in the country’s oldest recorded town, The Mercury Theatre has been streaming a live recent production of Cinderella. “We’re thrilled that even more people now have the opportunity to enjoy it, safely from their sofa,” producer Tracey Childs told the Colchester Gazette. Instead of booing on-screen villains, young families may have been jeering real-life buffering wheels of doom and applauding stable connections. The show must go online.
Sport has been no stranger to taking advantage of the latest turbocharged technology, from streaming in mind-blowing 8K to spearheading Augmented Reality (AR) services.
But dealt with the unforeseeable blow of cancelling all events, and with no live crowds expected any time soon, organisers have been forced to dig deep into their reservoir of digital expertise to serve up some semblance of sporting spectacles to a sport-mad nation craving the return of action.
Step forward darts. The sport has enjoyed a renaissance over the last decade, throwing arrows in front of thousands of rowdy live crowds, and has now moved from the oche to the living room in the shape of Darts at Home. The idea is simple: players set-up a smartphone and live stream a match against each other via a split screen. They call out their own scores and a Sky ‘commentator’ provides context.
The infrastructure, unfortunately, misses the mark. The Guardian praised the format but lamented the “shonky wifi”. Double world champion Gary Anderson was forced to pull out – not because of injury or illness, but because of poor broadband connection. Surely a first for the sport.
Meanwhile, Sir Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal swapped tennis rackets for PS4 controllers in the Mutua Madrid Open Virtual Pro, Formula 1 has launched a Virtual Grand Prix, and school games and regattas have been held on Zoom. Competitors worldwide also entered the Ironman Virtual Reality Challenge, streamed live on Facebook. Australian triathlete Mirinda Carfrae hopes of winning were dashed when clumsy husband Tim tripped over the power cables. Another sporting first.
Speed is paramount. From disseminating coronavirus research in the scientific community to equipping all residents and businesses with future-ready Hyperfast networks, the importance of speed has been uniquely highlighted in this public health crisis.
For all industries, from those outlined above to local government and the justice system, to truly adapt and thrive in the new digital normal, the heralded Fourth Industrial Revolution predicated on full-fibre infrastructure will need to accelerate too.