So, what type of digital divide do the people of Wales want?
Do they want the digital divide that currently exists? In this one, broadband take up rates as low as 40% are commonplace. Internet inequality mirrors social inequality. Older people, those on low incomes, and those with fewer qualifications are half as likely to take up broadband as those who are younger, better off and in managerial or professional jobs. In some defined social groups there was a shocking figure of 26% for broadband take up.
This is the type of internet inequality outlined in a report by the Bevan Foundation entitled Digital Wales, Divided Wales. The report is based upon research which found 99% of households have access to broadband in Wales, and approximately 60% take it up. Infrastructure, therefore, for this generation of broadband is clearly not a problem. All but 1% of people in Wales can receive broadband if they wish. The problem is, according to the Bevan Foundation, that they don’t want it. Engagement, they claim is the key question facing digital Wales. The report states,
‘Broadband take up has undoubtedly increased rapidly, but take up amongst some socio-economic groups – particularly amongst the lowest income households and amongst older people – remains low’
The regional and geographical variations in take up tend to mirror the socio-economic factors. In short, those who are socially deprived don’t take up broadband. The report states that the overwhelming reason people give for not accessing the internet is that ‘they don’t want to’. Although the report points out,
‘This reason inevitably includes lack of awareness, lack of skills and lack of opportunity as well as simple ‘choice’ and should not be taken at face value. It is also worth noting that perceived cost was a factor in lack of access to the internet in a substantial minority of households, particularly working households, and this too may be a factor for further consideration.’
The report concludes that digital inequality could have a serious effect on the ability of individuals to function in society as more and more goods and services become available online and nowhere else. This is an important and vital report, and not just for Wales. Internet inequality is a major factor all over the country, and it does tend to follow the patterns of social inequality.
The fact that the highest take up of broadband services in Britain is in the South East of England, and the lowest is in the North East of England tells you everything you need to know.
So, should public policy be directed to increasing the number of people from those low take up groups to use the internet? My belief is that it should. The key factors affecting people’s decisions in these instances are a lack of information about what is available to them, and a prohibitive cost. Digital Britain should deal with the issue relating to cost, as 2Mb becomes the standard across the UK, but it is up to the Assembly and the UK government to look at how to encourage these groups in society to engage with the forthcoming digital revolution.
The second type of internet inequality is one that relates to speed. Ofcom has found that Welsh consumers receive much slower broadband speed than the rest of the UK and that the top broadband speeds are not available anywhere in Wales. The top download speed in Wales is a shocking 4.3Mbps. Now, I realise that here in London we are a bit spoiled with up to 50Mbps, but this discrepancy is patently ridiculous. As Rhodri Williams of Ofcom put it on the Wales Online site,
'Broadband is not just something for businesses, or for geeks, it’s now something that you need for doing school homework, or getting access to the best consumer deals. It’s vital for many people, the majority of people in society to have access to broadband. The number of services dependent on broadband is only going to increase.'
The problem is that the infrastructure in Wales is made up largely of copper wire connections. These connections are, of course, considerably slower than the Virgin Media fibre optic cables. The Assembly Government ‘Regional Innovative Broadband Support Scheme’ (RIBS) has ensured that every exchange in Wales is now broadband enabled. Therefore the Digital Britain report guarantee of 2Mbps seems a bit of a damp squib. Lots and lots of people in Wales already have that speed, and they are not happy with it. There are also lots of people in Wales who simply don’t want to take up broadband services because of expense, or because they don’t really understand what it could do for them.
So it seems either way, a fair digital Wales is looking ever more distant.
The issue of internet inequality is one that, at the moment, reflects social inequality. It is, however, important not to simply sit back and criticise those who are campaigning for ever faster speeds. In a years time 2Mbps will look even slower in the light of 100Mbps and above becoming more commonplace. It is important to be fighting for equality regarding speed as well as equality of social engagement with the internet. To do one without the other is pointless. If WAG does manage to encourage people from a broader social spectrum to take up broadband, all their good work will be lost if those people then find that their broadband is slower than the rest of the country, and that it doesn’t allow them to do all the things they want to.
It’s also worth considering this data in relation to digital media start-ups and the online news revolution in Wales. Investment in Web based TV channels seems pointless if your viewers are going to struggle to connect and be able to view live streaming video. It also limits the number of people who are going to view what you are doing, as in some areas internet take up is so low there just won’t be an audience.
In order to get digital Wales up and running and working properly there must be proper investment in fibre optic cable. This must be done alongside encouraging those disaffected members of our society to engage with this potentially life-changing technology.
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