The importance of having access to the internet and the world wide web has grown exponentially in the last decade or so. Whereas in its earliest incarnation the internet was used mainly for information exchange or online communications, nowadays computers, smart phones, smart TVs and other digital appliances access the web, internet connected apps, streaming media and cloud storage as a part of all daily activities. In fact, home working, home schooling and remote social connections during the Covid-19 pandemic were able to largely continue because of the internet supporting education platforms, video calling and smart phones.
For many people, the use of social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Whatsapp and Snapchat has become a daily necessity. As well as providing a means of social interaction and connectivity, it is also increasingly used as a means of accessing news and information, for shopping and as an aid to decision making. With cash in decline, online shopping is here to stay.
New technologies also have a wider role in leisure and cultural activities. Increasingly, broadcast media is accessed through internet-ready TVs and digi-boxes, and streaming media allows instant access to music, TV, films, interactive gaming, live-broadcast sports and facilitates participation in international cultural events from your own front room. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, people have relied on digital mediums to stay in touch with family and friends, to work, learn and to continue with their hobbies, regardless of physical distances. Most people have had to learn new skills to adapt to new ways of connecting and digital technology is now considered essential to community cohesion.
Commercial and business access to the internet is also essential (see our ‘economic‘ well-being goal summary for further information). In addition to providing online marketing and sales opportunities the internet offers a means of remote working, long distance co-operation, access to online work tools and data storage, access to knowledge sharing and research work, and international connectivity through instant communications technology – all of which can be much more productive and cost-effective than their offline equivalents. Without these, many businesses would have stopped completely during the global Covid-19 pandemic.
The cyber world and communications technology also offer potential for employment and economic growth, as it is an expanding high-wage sector. It can require limited investment in more traditional infrastructure, building and land provision than many other industries, as it is portable, flexible, and has aspects that support flexible/home working and small scale start-ups as well as large business developments.
In its report on Digital Communications Infrastructure in Wales, the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales, stated: “The latest generation of mobile technology will also support a range of new applications for businesses and public authorities which promise significant economic and social benefits over the next 10-15 years.”
The public and third sectors increasingly rely on new technology to help deliver their services; either through online transaction or as an information tool. Some examples include the NHS Direct Wales website, online Universal Credit applications, requests for new recycling bins, circulating school newsletters, or reporting minor incidents to the police. Online services can help people to overcome barriers to accessing services because of transport or socio-economic deprivation, for instance (see our ‘Living in isolation and access to services‘ topic for further information).
People, particularly young people, and high growth businesses consider communications infrastructure when making decisions about where to live or locate their operations. The lack of decent broadband and even 4G coverage in some areas, when considered alongside the demand for 5G, means that young people and businesses may decide now to wait for better coverage, and will choose to live/locate elsewhere.
“We are also concerned that the particular challenges of deploying fibre to the home infrastructure in Wales – with a large rural population and less competitive pressure on BT – mean that Welsh households and businesses will find themselves at the end of the (long) queue for fibre. This means Welsh households could be waiting many years – probably more than 10 in some cases – to obtain a better broadband connection than they have today. Some households and businesses will be so expensive to reach that they may never be served by fibre to the home technology, or only at an unaffordable cost.”
There are geographical ‘not-spots’ throughout the area (those places where internet access is restricted, slow or non-existent). Traditionally rural areas are expected to suffer from poor broadband service and 3G/4G/5G reception compared to the more urban areas, but it is worth noting that these internet not-spots are not confined to the more remote and inaccessible areas. There are also many low income families who are unable to afford subscriptions to broadband services. Mobile data can be a more affordable and flexible option compared to fixed broadband packages as it can be accessed without installation costs, line rental, or long term contracts. Without access to all providers of 4G mobile data, many customers will not benefit from the same offers or deals that others receive throughout the UK. Data, however, can be expensive; unaffordable even for those in poverty or at risk of socio-economic exclusion.
The percentage of mobile 4G road signal (from all operators) is considered to be an indicator of mobile reception coverage (notwithstanding elsewhere in the UK, 5G is considered the best). In Conwy County Borough, 39.94% of A and B roads have 4G road signal from all 4 operators; Denbighshire had 49.92% as at May 2021. Conwy at this time was among the top ten local authorities with the lowest coverage by all operators for 4G outdoor geographic coverage across the UK. The National Infrastructure Commission for Wales has recommended that Welsh Government exploit the potential of 4G and 5G home broadband, which could also be a quicker/less expensive solution where fibre broadband is unavailable, and cites local authorities in particular as being key to adopting a favourable environment for operators to deploy improvements to digital infrastructure that serve communities and businesses well over the medium term.
As at July 2021, both Conwy County Borough and Denbighshire had 94.3% coverage of superfast broadband (speeds of 30 mbps or more), and 3.27% of areas in Conwy had speeds of 10megabites per second (mbps) or below. Denbighshire had 4.34% of areas with 10mbps or below. Below 10mbps is considered to be very poor and shows that a small number of areas are still ‘left behind’. However, over the next five to 10 years, those with fewer than 100 mbps could be considered ‘left behind’. In general, improvements to superfast across the two counties have been slow since 2018, and are worse than the Wales/UK averages. Due to the changing status of broadband coverage, all live data is best accessed from the Local Broadband Coverage website.
Tackling digital exclusion involves looking at the range of barriers to accessing the internet, not just infrastructure issues. Those who are socially and economically excluded – poorer households, the disabled, and the elderly, for example – are much less likely to be internet users than the population as a whole.
The Digital Exclusion Risk Index (DERI) tool brings together a broad set of digital exclusion indicators (age, deprivation and broadband), to create an overall DERI score for areas across the UK. The score is a number between 0 and 10, with a higher number indicating a higher risk of digital exclusion.
The Conwy County Borough has an overall score of 4, which is considered to represent a low risk of digital exclusion. The ward at highest risk overall is Eglwysbach, with a score of 4.9. However, certain communities are more at risk of exclusion because of different factors. When we look at risk factors associated with age or deprivation alone, the risk score is very high for coastal parts (up to 9.79 for Craig-y-Don for age and 7.2 for the Glyn ward in terms of deprivation). The risk associated with exclusion due to broadband availability, the score is 10 for Eglwysbach, and above 9 for other southern wards in the county.
Denbighshire’s overall score is 3.88, which is also considered to represent a low risk of digital exclusion. The ward at highest risk overall is Prestatyn North, with a score of 5.7. However, as before, certain communities are more at risk of exclusion because of different factors. When we look at risk factors associated with age or deprivation alone, the risk score is very high for coastal parts (up to 9.1 for Prestatyn North and 8.5 for Rhyl East for age, and 9.37 for the Rhyl West ward in terms of deprivation). The risk associated with exclusion due to broadband availability, the score is 9 for Llanrhaeadr yng Nghinmeirch, and above 8.19 for Llanbedr Dyffyn Clwyd/Llangynhafal.
Internet use is another useful indicator for measuring the extent to which people are active users of the internet. 89.8% of people aged 16 or over, across Conwy County Borough and Denbighshire reported to have used the internet in the last 3 months as at April 2020, compared to 87.7% for the same period in 2019. This is an increase of 10% since 2014. The data obtained from the Labour Force Survey, published by the Office for National Statistics, does not contain low level geographic data for the two counties but we can reflect on some broader trends from across the UK. While there has been little change in internet use for adults aged 16 to 44 years in recent years, the proportion of those aged 75 years and over who are recent internet users nearly doubled since 2013, from 29%, to 54% in 2020. The number of disabled adults who were recent internet users in 2020 reached almost 11 million, 81% of disabled adults; up from just over 10 million (78% of disabled adults) in 2019. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on internet use will need to be reviewed as new data becomes available.
Online safety and misinformation
As well as the social and economic opportunities offered by digital technologies, there are some negative aspects around online safety which are increasingly causing concern, and which public authorities, providers of technology and society as a whole are still developing means of dealing with. These include controlling access to inappropriate content for children and young people, on-line grooming (including radicalisation), cyberbullying, trolling and online fraud/identity theft.
Cyberbullying is when someone bullies others over the internet or on a mobile phone by sending abusive emails or texts directly to the victim, or by posting or sharing nasty comments or humiliating images where other people can see them. Cyberbullying can have negative effect on mental well-being, and is a particular problem for young people.
One of the biggest differences between cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying is that it can be hard to get away from. Victims could be bullied anywhere, anytime – even when they’re at home.
Cyberbullying can have a large audience too. Posts on social networks, emails or group chats can be seen by lots of people very quickly.
Cyberbullies can also remain anonymous, by using fake profiles on social networks or blocking their phone numbers. This can make it harder to identify the bullies.
Sexting – a type of cyberbullying that involves the sharing of intimate information and images – can be particularly distressing, and includes unsolicited images sent to victims as well as the use of their own images/comments to blackmail, bully or harm.
Online fraud and identity theft are also particular areas of concern. Though these are new twists on longstanding criminal activity, as with cyberbullying the growth on new technology means that these forms of abuse are now potentially everywhere, all the time. Threats include viruses, which can infect your computer and damage it, and online scams. Online scams are when criminals use the internet to try to con people into giving them money or their personal information, and include fake websites, targeted emails and even grooming of victims through online forums. Anyone can become a victim of scams but older people may be particularly targeted, often because it is assumed that they have more money than younger people. Age UK is particularly concerned that recent changes to private pensions allowing people aged 55+ to take all their pension savings in cash will encourage the scammers to target this age group even more.
In recent times, misinformation, or ‘fake news’, and social media have presented serious challenges to governments, businesses and people themselves. Examples include anti-vax campaigns, electoral tampering, ‘Covid is a hoax’ campaigns. Fake news is designed to undermine trust and confidence in democracy and public institutions. The World Health Organisation has started to refer to this as an ‘infodemic’, where there is “too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak.” In relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO has developed guidelines to ensure successful ‘infodemic management’, which involves ensuring consistent and factual information is disseminated appropriately. We do not currently have evidence to fully understand to what extent misinformation is causing people anxiety, or affecting Covid-19 vaccine uptake for example (see our ‘Emerging threats to health and well-being‘ topic for further information).
The way people access information has changed significantly in recent years with internet usage in Wales increasing from 42% of households in 2004 to 90% of households in 2019-20.
Improving broadband and 4G, coupled with the rapid increase in the use of smart phones and their associated apps has made a wide range of information and digital services far more accessible than at any point in history.
The 2019-20 National Survey included questions on internet use, internet skills, and which public sector websites they had visited in the last year. These questions were also asked in 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic. 77% of internet users had visited at least one public service website in the past 12 months. The following factors were noted as being linked with having visited at least one public service website:
If the current rate of growth continues it is predicted that almost all households in Wales will have access to the internet inside the next 10 years. Conwy County Borough and Denbighshire areas will probably continue to be among the worst performing, slowest to receive the better infrastructure without the focussed effort by the likes of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, for example.
There will also be some households that will continue to be digitally excluded on the basis of data poverty for example.
Evidence about the impact of social media, which can be both positive and negative, is conflicted. Perhaps this topic will be better understood in the medium term.
There are some trends that are worth noting. They might not all come to fruition, but these should be considered in the context of the other well-being goals:
Personal data management has become, and is likely to continue to be, more sensitive.
It is likely that those who are able to, will continue to work from home, or another remote location, and will seek face to face contact for social opportunities (see our summary for the ‘Cultural‘ well-being goal for further information).
There is a possibility that more women than men will choose to work from home, or remotely, to achieve a work-life balance. This could remove their visibility at work, and their involvement in decision making
Offices will adapt, and this is likely to have an impact on town centres. (hyperlink to economy)
Travel for work is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Houses will need to adapt to accommodate one or more household members working from home. This could affect house prices as more people are able to work great distances from their registered offices (see our ‘Providing housing‘ topic for more information).
Virtual reality is set to increase and whether or how these will complement ‘face to face’ social and cultural experiences is not clear. There is the potential for a detrimental impact on the Welsh language.
People will seek credible, reliable and transparent information and immediacy will be highly valued.
Public services will seek to find more, new and better ways to offer their services virtually.
Automation is where tasks currently done by people are replaced by technology, this could be by algorithms, computer programmes or robots. The recession triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating the automation trend. The World Economic Forum reports that 43% of businesses indicate that they plan to reduce their workforce due to technology integration, and that by 2025, the time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal. Automation previously mainly impacted manufacturing; it is now transforming services (Future of Work in Wales, 2017). Women, young people, and those who work part-time are most likely to work in roles that are at high risk of automation.
 Natural Resources Wales (2021). Future of Work in Wales Horizon Scanning approach. Unpublished document. Accessed 2 August 2021.
People told us that they would like to see public services, especially the councils, communicating more effectively, and more often. They also want to see improvements to the way Denbighshire Conwy Council responds to queries. There was also an aspiration for more communication about what the council does and achieves, with schools as well as the wider community. People also want to see more young people involved in decision making.
The role and influence of misinformation (fake news) and its impact on our ability to fulfil our wider public health and civic objectives, is not yet clear.
Have more businesses pivoted to have an online platform? Are there training gaps?
We had seen a growth in online health consultations, more so in North West Wales, prior to the social distancing measures imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic. These increased exponentially during the lockdowns, and still continue to be in place for many health services, particularly in primary care. However, there is a growing concern and wish for face to face consultations. We are not sure currently how we can balance opportunities posed by online services, which can remove travel barriers for instance and produce cost savings for services, with the challenges around the quality of the service from the user’s perspective. How big an issue is this?
 Natural Resources Wales (2021). Future of Work in Wales Horizon Scanning approach. Unpublished document. Accessed 2 August 2021.
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