Open spaces, lush rolling hills and rugged coastlines encapsulate the stereotypical perception of rural Wales. So much so that we often neglect to think of its harsh reality of isolation and digital exclusion. In 2018, the Welsh Labour Government said that “Loneliness and isolation in rural Wales is a ticking time bomb”. So, why haven’t they acted on this?
There can be no denying that the isolated nature of rural Wales has had a detrimental effect on its inhabitants, businesses and communities. This forced seclusion from the rest of society is exacerbated by the dreadful internet connection found or, more commonly that not, missing from these areas. Businesses are unable to sell their merchandise or advertise their services online, attend virtual meetings, access their banking systems or communicate with their customers, to name just a few issues. Broadband has become a key utility alongside water and gas. It is now a basic necessity for everyday life in our modern world.
The business landscape is changing. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, more people are working from home and depend on fast broadband to earn a living. People could be facing dismissal if they cannot fulfil their duties, putting more strain on resources and the local economy, through no fault of their own. We need to ensure that all of our Welsh businesses have adequate access, at the very least, to fast internet to make us more competitive in a post Brexit world.
Over lockdown, we saw 1,000’s of children and students requiring internet access to continue their studies online, yet this wasn’t possible for everyone. Many needed to download their daily tasks and resources as well as upload their completed work to be assessed. It was widely assumed that these students would have access to internet and devises that would enable them to resume their education from their own homes. This is a contributory factor for the widening gap in in education. It prevented our future doctors from learning about the anatomy, accountants from learning the rules of addition and carpenters from developing their sketching abilities. Whilst some children progressed over lockdown, others were left behind.
Although, Welsh Government is reputed to have invested over £200M, there is still a large gap in access to high quality broadband connection in rural areas compared to its urban counter parts. Places such as Pandy in Wrexham have limited phone signal and broadband speeds of just 1MG or less whereas broadband speeds often reach 65MG in Cardiff city centre. I find it extremely frustrating to be living on a farm on the urban fringe, just 1 mile from the nearest village with Fibreoptic broadband, to have spent my summer internship watching the loading circle go around on my screen, waiting for the internet to load on my laptop. It is frustrating but it is embarrassing for the signal to be buffering during important meetings.
Not only does this have an effect on the Welsh economy, but it also has an impact on people’s mental health. The lack of access to social media, video messaging services and general communication links has meant that people were feeling increasingly lonely and vulnerable during the national lockdown when they were unable to socialise in person or have daily human interaction. How would you feel if you lived alone, with no close neighbours and the inability to keep in contact with your family, to see their faces or hear their voices? This is quite frankly unacceptable from the powers that be.
Next year’s Senedd election is a golden opportunity to improve not only our rural economy and prospects for businesses but also mental wellbeing of the population of these isolated areas. We must ensure that we work for the whole population of Wales, it’s imperative that no one is left behind. I sincerely hope that isolation in rural Wales is a priority for our great Party, people of all backgrounds, ages and walks of life are affected by this so let’s make a positive impact on their futures.