Facilitating Access to Internet Service in Amsterdam and Helsinki
As the Internet becomes a vital tool in the 21st century, cities worldwide are connecting their most vulnerable residents to affordable Internet service and training them to leverage the Internet to conduct business and manage many aspects of their lives. The cities of Amsterdam and Helsinki deployed various methods to ensure residents have access to affordable Internet service, preferably at home, but also away from home. Amsterdam has deployed various methods to help residents acquire basic digital skills to enable them to use computers and the Internet effectively. Helsinki has taken the lead in developing online services for residents and fostering innovation.
Internet Access at Home
Like their counterparts in other cities, officials in Amsterdam and Helsinki realized that residents need access to low-cost high-speed Internet at home. Realizing that residents were reliant upon slower cable and digital subscriber line (DSL) services and that Internet service providers (ISPs) did not intend to upgrade to high-speed fiber, Amsterdam officials tried to partner with ISPs to offer low-cost, high-speed Internet to residents and businesses over government-owned infrastructure.
Unfortunately, these efforts were only partly successful, leaving the vast majority of residents stuck with costly, fairly slow Internet and approximately ten percent of Amsterdam’s population, usually elderly and non-Dutch speakers, without Internet at home.
Helsinki officials were fortunate that recent changes in Finnish law to promote competition between ISPs and user-owned telecom cooperatives reduced prices for wireline Internet service to about 20 euros per month for 20 Mbps service to 40 euros per month for high-speed service (1 Gbps), which is affordable to most residents.
Social care subsidizes the cost of home Internet for the small share of Helsinki residents who cannot afford Internet at those prices. To expand access further, the Helsinki City Council is considering paying for Internet for people with disabilities. Therefore, Helsinki did not need to attempt to install government-owned fiber to all city residences, in contrast to Amsterdam.
A larger share of Amsterdam and Helsinki residents have home Internet than in U.S. cities, which reduces the share of the population these cities must serve by facilitating Internet access away from home.
Internet Access Away From Home
To serve residents without home Internet, Amsterdam provides free Internet at community centers, which are within half a mile of most residents while Helsinki provides free Internet at libraries. Helsinki residents may need to schedule their library Internet session if demand is high.
Helsinki also has a municipal network comprised of city-owned fiber and equipment plus fiber owned by ISP, Elisa. Elisa operates the network for the city. Helsinki uses the network to provide:
- A closed wireless local area network (WLAN) that serves about 700 office buildings. Building owners maintain all network equipment in their buildings. This network has service level agreements.
- An open WLAN with approximately 1800 hotspots that provides free wifi on central city streets. This network has no service level agreements; city staff fixes issues when they have time.
Lessons for Other Cities
The experiences of Amsterdam and Helsinki provide many lessons for other cities.
First, as demonstrated by Amsterdam, it is difficult for the government to build fiber infrastructure directly to homes despite residents’ need for high-speed Internet because ISPs resist government involvement in infrastructure deployment. Therefore, few cities attempt to install fiber to residences. Instead, most establish policies to encourage the private sector to deploy fiber to homes if the national government has not already done so. Helsinki was fortunate that action by the Finnish national government ensured its residents access to relatively affordable, high-speed Internet, leaving it free to focus on meeting the needs of the small share of the population without home Internet.
Second, while it is extremely difficult for local governments to ensure that residents have access to low-cost, high-speed Internet at home, it is relatively easy to provide such access away from home. Like Amsterdam and Helsinki, other cities can leverage city-owned and operated spaces like libraries, community centers, schools, and other government building to provide residents free access to Internet-connected workstations for people who lack a computer. People who have a laptop but lack home Internet can bring their own computer to these spaces and use the free Internet. To assist residents with less substantial tasks that can be accomplished on the go, cities can to provide free Internet access via wifi networks in parks and on streets.
While these are not perfect solutions, cities can take steps to connect residents with the Internet away from home to reduce the negative impact of not having Internet at home.
Providing Basic Digital Skills Education in Amsterdam
Officials in Amsterdam recognize that they must help equip residents with the skills to leverage technology. Their digital skills education programs shrewdly leverage existing connections, residents’ interests, and people’s critical life events to ensure that programs are relevant to the target audience.
Recruitment to digital education starts by asking professionals who regularly interact with target individuals (like social workers) to refer clients to digital skills classes. Because information about the training comes from someone residents know and trust, they are more likely to consider attending than if they were approached by a stranger.
Then, Amsterdam further leverages familiarity by hosting classes in community centers, which are beloved by residents due to their accessibility (within ½ mile of most residents) and due to staff practice of collaborating with residents to plan center programming to meet community members’ needs.
Once people arrive at class, training leverages their interests to demonstrate the benefits and relevance of the Internet. For example, after learning about a student’s love for cats, instructors showed her websites focused on cats, cat products, cat videos, etc. By researching cats online, she learned key skills and views the Internet as a tool to learn about cats. Eventually, she may use the Internet to research other topics.
Amsterdam also offers informal digital skills instruction to residents via interactions associated with crucial life events. City staff share information about prenatal care, childbirth, and infant care with pregnant women, new mothers, and their partners during healthcare visits and also teach families to research these topics via the Internet.
Amsterdam’s digital skills course also trains parents to use the website and mobile application that tracks homework assignments, child attendance at school, and parent-teacher conferences. Schools train students to use the website and the app.
Recognizing that some learners may not thrive in a classroom, Amsterdam offers one-on-one tutoring in digital skills for people aged 55 and older. At program inception, students receive a tablet, an Internet connection, and a high-school or college-age tutor who meets with the student for 1.5 hours a week for 3 months. Together, the tutor and the adult student choose two tasks the student wants to be able to perform online at the end of the program. Upon completion, students keep the tablet and meet people with whom they can practice their new Internet skills to aid learning retention.
Lessons for Other Cities
Realizing that some residents do not know how to use the Internet and computer technology (ICT), many cities have launched basic digital skills education programs. These typically involve classes structured around a standard ICT curriculum.
While many communities utilize institutional service providers like libraries and community centers to host classes, Amsterdam is unique is leveraging more personal relationships, like those between social workers and their clients, to recruit people to classes.
Amsterdam’s digital education programs are exceptional in that instructors take time to get to know students enough to build instruction based on the specific interests and life events of students. Amsterdam’s programs are also remarkable in offering one-on-one tutoring in addition to classes.
While other cities may not have the budget to replicate all of Amsterdam’s digital skills offerings, they may consider deploying some of these when working with people with the most severe challenges to acquiring ICT skills.
Supporting Online Services and Innovation in Helsinki
In contrast to Amsterdam’s focus on leveraging life events and people’s interest to entice them into basic digital skills training, Helsinki utilized the migration of municipally-provided health and social services online and the deployment of in-home healthcare and sustainability technologies to nudge residents to learn digital skills.
As of spring 2017, the City of Helsinki offered approximately 70 different E-Services, 24 hours a day and 7 days per week, except when offline for maintenance. Registration requires a mobile phone number or an email account plus self-authentication with a bank or other acceptable ID. A mobile application allows residents to register for and use E-Services via phone, which residents prefer due to their greater accessibility. Therefore, all new applications must be mobile friendly. The city provided videos for residents to watch to learn how to use its various online tools and residents also could seek help at libraries.
One popular E-Service allows residents to view daycare centers on a map and retrieve the head teacher’s name, the handicapped accessibility of the building, directions to the location and other information about the center. Once, they’ve compared daycares, parents can submit an application for their child(ren) online.
Other E-Services aim to maintain resident trust in government by sharing information about government operations and gathering feedback from residents.
Helsinki uses GitHub and D-CENT to share data and information. GitHub hosts city datasets and related open-source code while D-CENT presents decisions made by the Mayor, City Council, agencies, and departments. Journalists amplify D-CENT’s impact by disseminating information via print, radio, television, and online to the public.
On the other side of the two-way conversation between government and residents, Helsinki also uses online tools to gather information and opinions from residents. These are Tell Your Opinion and Tell on the Map. Tell Your Opinion gathers resident feedback on specific issues while Tell on the Map lets residents report potholes, broken streetlights, non-wheelchair accessible buildings, etc. by noting where the problem is on a map. Nine of 35 departments used the tool for 40+ surveys to gather 20,000+ comments, which increased public involvement in official planning processes.
To support innovation, in 2017, Helsinki began earmarking money for trial projects, whose continuance hinged on the pilot’s success. This change eliminated the need to perfect a concept before launch and allows Helsinki to advance a larger number of ideas to fruition.
Currently, Helsinki prioritizes projects that leverage digital technology to improve residents’ health, safety, and welfare and promote sustainability goals.
As part of its provision of healthcare services to residents, the city government planned to add sensors to carpets and floors in the homes of the elderly. The sensors will notify caregivers if the elderly resident falls and does not leave the floor after a predetermined amount of time so caregivers can check on the resident in person. This remote monitoring can help protect the health and safety of the elderly residents and allow them to live independently in their homes for a longer period of time, which improves their general welfare.
As part of sustainability efforts, Helsinki is creating Smart Kalasatama, a mixed-use, district of re-developed warehouses 10 minutes from downtown by Metro and 15 minutes by bike. By 2035, area population should increase from the current 3,000 residents to 25,000 residents with 8000 jobs, a healthcare center for 1000 people, and a school without classrooms to test new education pedagogies. Residential projects include affordable housing and onsite offices for rent by teleworking residents. Regulations for the district require buildings to provide smart energy management; water management; recycling, reuse, refurbishment; parking; lighting; and wayfinding.
By April 2017, approximately 150 firms were piloting 20+ projects with Kalasatama residents. Forum Virium connects residents willing to test products and services with companies that need testers by connecting the firm to the relevant interest group – e.g.) elderly, elderly exercisers, parents of young children, etc.
Like the E-Services, the installation of technology to monitor elderly people at home and Smart Kalasatama are also vehicles to nudge residents to use ICT. In some instances, like the elderly home monitoring project, residents may need to do little other than allow technology into their homes and agree to let others monitor it. In other instances, like the product and service testing in Smart Kalasatama, residents are actively using technology and thereby expanding their digital skills.
Lessons for Other Cities
Helsinki city government cleverly used the migration of social services to online platforms to help residents, the users of these services, to acquire digital skills. Because Finnish local governments provide key services like healthcare and childcare, Helsinki could leverage online migration to foster digital skills education. This strategy may be useful for peer cities in other nations where the local government provides many basic services to all residents.
However, because U.S. cities, and U.S. government in general, often provide healthcare and childcare services only to low-income residents, this approach would not reach as large a share of the population as in many European cities. However, because low-income residents are less likely to have acquired basic digital skills, there still is some potential value for U.S. cities to leverage their provision of services to this group to foster digital education.
Likewise, with significant collaboration with the private firms selling the technology, cities pursuing telehealth, “smart city” and similar projects also could replicate Helsinki’s deployment of innovative technology as a tool to entice people to learn digital skills.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.