COVID shows that better broadband is not enough to keep local economies afloat

What happened when half our workforce and most children and students started making extreme demands on our broadband and internet use? What did it mean for different parts of the country and economic resilience?

Here Dr Hannah Budnitz with BDFI Affiliate Dr Emmanouil Tranos calls for our industrial structures to place digital and socio-economic considerations front and centre to help us all keep pace with the changes to the way we work and study.

When COVID saw the UK government tell people to work from home in early 2020, the expectation was that they would use digital technologies to do so. Scientists worldwide have since highlighted how the pandemic has intensified the effect of the digital divide (the gap between those who have access to the latest technology and those who do not).

Amid its COVID recovery plans for England, the UK government is aiming to expand digital infrastructure, 5G and fibre optic broadband across the country.

As our research shows, however, bridging the digital divide is about more than making sure everyone has access to digital infrastructure and having the skills to use it. Communication scientists speak of the third level of the digital divide: the capacity to use digital technologies to enhance economic activities.

Patterns of demand

Household demand for bandwidth to download large video files or stream faster from online television services has been growing for a long time. Conversely, until the pandemic hit, relatively few people were using data at a volume that would have affected network performance.

When half the workforce started working from home, however, and the country’s schoolchildren and students were sent home too, videoconferencing took off. We expected this extreme demand for telecommuting during working hours to change the pattern of internet use and broadband performance.

To determine how this affected the economic resilience of different places — their capacity to maintain economic activity — during the pandemic, we analysed data on the upload and download speeds that internet users experienced during the first UK lockdown in 2020.

We found that patterns of demand changed a lot in most of the UK, both in terms of download and upload speeds. People weren’t only using the internet to download data (movies or music, for example) but to upload data, primarily for videoconferencing. Zoom, after all, counted 300 million daily meeting participants worldwide at its April 2020 peak.

Socio-economic correlations

Now, only half of the UK’s workforce were able to continue working remotely. The other half still had to go into work or were furloughed.

To understand whether existing economic divides and digital divides overlapped or diverged, we first created clusters of local authorities based on upload internet speeds as experienced by internet users in these places during the lockdown. We then correlated these clusters with various economic and geographical variables: distances to cities, the north-south economic divide, different occupations, average earnings, number of jobs and businesses, and furlough numbers.

Our findings indicate that areas, including Bristol and Cambridge, with relatively slow and unreliable internet services were not those with the highest percentages of people on furlough. Increased demand for digital services such as Zoom and the resulting network congestion occurred in these areas where (and perhaps because) occupations were more economically resilient: they were able to continue operating despite the pandemic.

Conversely, some areas with reliably high broadband speeds, suffered economically as reflected in high furlough numbers. These areas are characterised by a lack of jobs in the kind of occupations (technology and business services) that enable workers to be productive at home.

The temporary shift to flexible working models ushered in by the pandemic appears to be lasting. Some employers want their staff to return to the office, but many more are planning for hybrid or flexible working. A few are considering a permanent shift to remote working.

This means that the demand for fast and reliable upload and download speeds during working hours in residential areas is here to stay. Ofcom’s latest reports already include more data on upload speeds, and internet service providers will no doubt need to focus more on what customers need during working hours. Government ministers, meanwhile, should be thinking not only about 5G and the wider digital infrastructure, but also about the sort of jobs and skills people need in order to make the best use of it.

As our research illustrates, in order for a place to be economically resilient — for the local economy to continue to operate — during a pandemic, government ministers, community leaders and economists alike need to consider not only the digital divides linked to the internet’s physical infrastructure, but also the associated economic and social divides.

Broadband policies, although necessary, cannot boost the economic resilience of places on their own, where the industrial structure does not align with occupations that incorporate the digital skills and capabilities to work from home. This complex web of digital and socio-economic divides needs to be incorporated into our thinking of local economies and government priorities.


New routes into gaming with Supermassive Games

We all have a part to play in creating a more inclusive gaming industry. We are launching a PhD opportunity for Black heritage students to work with us – a BAFTA-award winning independent games company – to deliver action research that will help propel the industry to a more inclusive future. Interested? 

Here’s Pete and Joe Samuels, co-founders of Supermassive Games, to tell us more about who they are, why this PhD is so important, and how you can get involved…

Who are Supermassive Games?  

Supermassive Games was founded in 2008. It’s incredible and humbling to think that we are now home to over 200 talented individuals. We have released a number of successful titles, but you probably know us from Until Dawn – for which we won a BAFTA – and the recently launched The Dark Pictures Anthology.  You may have also experienced Until Dawn; Rush of Blood on VR too. But even if you have never played any of our games that shouldn’t put you off. It’s the people behind the games that we are most proud of – from the artists to programmers, producers to audio and everything in between.  

What needs to change?   

The specific events of 2020, that highlighted the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, motivated us at Supermassive Games to identify meaningful and active support that we could provide. We wanted to take actions that would have an impact and make a difference.    

“Deeds not words”  

We wanted to create an opportunity for a talented student to understand what can be done to promote greater inclusion and participation in the game development and related commercial ecosystem.   

“We are deeply committed to transforming our industry to become more inclusive” 

So, we are delighted to announce the Supermassive Games PhD Studentship. This will be exclusively open to people of Black heritage, and we hope it will help improve representation in the postgraduate and research community as well as eventually providing role models in senior academic positions.   

To fully understand the problem and to make practical and effective changes within the industry, this studentship will be a form of action research. That means rather than waiting 3 years for the findings, your research will involve trialing solutions in real time, learning about what works, and trying again. We are excited to support research that addresses issues head on in situ.  

Two colleagues sat at their desk working and laughing

How we will support you    

“Our studio doors are always open” 

One key area of the Supermassive Games PhD Studentship is the support we are planning. We are keen to help introduce you into our networks and to help in any way we can. It’s important to us that you feel supported, networked, and have access to opportunities during your studies. The studio doors will be open for you at any time. The Studentship will cover a full annual stipend of £15,609 each year, fees (so you don’t have to pay for your education) and annual research fund (to ensure you can access training opportunities or pay for practical things related to your studies like equipment, travel or transcription services).  

You will also benefit from:   

  • Access to the independent gaming industry via our networks 
  • Membership of the South West Doctoral Training Partnership, providing access to numerous benefits including free training, contacts across four universities, cohort building, and access to partners   
  • Membership of the Bristol Digital Futures Institute (BDFI) – an interdisciplinary research institute which aims to fundamentally transform the way we create new digital technology for inclusive, prosperous and sustainable societies. The Institute spans all university faculties and was founded in 2019 following a £100m investment by Research England.    
  • Access to BDFI’s network of 27 partners, and opportunities to work with them to deliver your research 

We are incredibly excited by the Supermassive Games PHD Studentship.  Whether you’ve never thought about a PHD, or have been planning for this since you were 7 years old, please apply.    

Pete and Joe Samuels,   

Founders – Supermassive Games  

 This blog was originally posted by Supermassive, click here to read the original



We must proactively shape our digital future

Owning our Digital Destinies – an introduction to the Bristol Digital Futures Institute

“Researchers, businesses, government and diverse communities must come together to proactively shape our digital future”, say Professors Susan Halford and Dimitra Simeonidou, Co-Directors of Bristol Digital Futures Institute (BDFI), the University of Bristol’s newest institute.

For the past decade Susan’s work has focused on the interface between social and computational sciences, while Dimitra specialises in high-performance networks and future internet research.

The BDFI is led by Professor Susan Halford (School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies) and Professor Dimitra Simeonidou (Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering). For the past decade Professor Halford’s work has focused on the interface between social and computational sciences, while Professor Simeonidou specialises in high-performance networks and future internet research. The fusion of expertise across disciplines is core to BDFI, which aims to transform the way we create, utilise and evaluate new digital technologies to benefit our society now and in the future.

Professor Susan Halford
Professor Susan Halford

“The digital revolution has transformed every facet of our lives in ways that few of us could have imagined, from our choice of partner through to our future career prospects”, says Dimitra. “Even the engineers who developed the underpinning technologies cannot have foreseen the full extent of it.”

Susan adds “Once a technology is released into the world, it tends to evolve in complex and contingent ways – in response to market forces, government regulation and the communities and end users themselves. There are beneficial outcomes, of course, but also challenges, and not everyone benefits equally.”

These challenges have been brought into sharp focus by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have managed to keep our society and economy going as best as possible by relying on digital technologies. We’ve tried to understand the spread of the virus through data collection and epidemiological computer modelling; we’ve worked remotely where possible; bought essentials online; and even taken part in virtual gym classes. But many have also struggled.

“We used to refer to the digital divide, but some in the field have started talking about a digital chasm opening up now”, says Susan, whose work focuses on the sociotechnical aspects of digital innovation.

“We hear of people trying to do home schooling with a mobile phone and no keyboard, really basic fundamental things. And it’s not just to do with access to devices or networks, though that’s clearly important; it’s about digital skills, education and opportunities. Who is able to work from home and who is going out to work at risk of exposure to the virus? So, in many ways, it’s an opportune time to start talking about some of these issues with respect to digital futures.”

Proactively shaping futures

The next wave of the digital revolution, which will include the extension of technologies including artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual worlds and superfast connectivity, presents perhaps even greater challenges and opportunities. But rather than sitting back and letting the invisible hand of markets and other forces dictate how the technologies evolve and for whom, can we be more pre-emptive and proactively shape the future?

Susan and Dimitra believe we can. Their respective backgrounds, in sociology and engineering, reflect the wider interdisciplinary makeup of the BDFI. This includes academic colleagues across all six faculties of the University and a wider community of partners – from world-leading technology businesses and creative companies to local government and community organisations.

Professor Dimitra Simeonidou
Professor Dimitra Simeonidou

“Typically, when we are looking at digital innovation from a technological point of view, it’s a very methodological process; everything has an input and everything has an output as part of a technical system,” says Dimitra. “What we do within BDFI is to include social, ethical, environmental and privacy considerations as an integral part of the digital technical design so we can innovate responsibly.”


Collaborative engagement

The BDFI has been made possible through £116 million in funding from a variety of sources, including Research England, philanthropic contributions and the BDFI’s partner organisations. The diverse group of 27 partners includes BT, Dyson, BBC, Airbus, Black South West Network, Ashley Community Housing and the West of England Combined Authority. The full-scale BDFI facility will be based at the University’s planned Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus, which is set to deliver more than £600m of employment and financial benefit to the Bristol region’s economy over the next ten years. The innovative spaces there will include a neutral lab co-creation environment for University and BDFI partners; a Reality Emulator (an advanced digital twin facility) to test new technologies in alternative futures; and a highly interactive instrumented auditorium for groups of people to make collective decisions.

“Our approach is participatory and experience-based,” says Professor Simeonidou. “Our digital design methodology will be informed in the very early stages by how technology is being used in context. This will be key in driving technology creation fit for future society. The way technology is consumed, for example, by academics is going to be very different to how it is being consumed by a youth group in their own environment, and it is important to understand such differences. We’re involving the end user from the very beginning in our innovation process.”

As soon as COVID-19 allows, BDFI will bring people together into the shared co-creation spaces and labs, including academics, students, industry and local communities, to start the conversation and to start ideating among themselves.

In addition, BDFI will reach out, through high-speed fibre connectivity, with its collaborative, distributed community across the city, effectively creating its own ‘internet for social-technical innovation’. Ultimately, the hope is to take the BDFI approach across the UK and eventually globally.

A lot of people are talking about futures at the moment, but for the most part in a rhetorical way; whereas we’re really, really serious in thinking about how to engage much more directly, constructively and proactively with the futures we’re creating here in the present,’ says Professor Halford. ‘The way that we’re engaging different ecosystems and different forms of knowledge in the project of creating futures, with the kinds of technical facilities that we are building, I think that’s really quite unique. I’m not sure anybody is doing anything quite like that.’

If you would like to start a conversation with BDFI, please email