“Nobody uses the internet round here”

I’ve lost count of the number of times that people have told me we need to use paper, or face-to-face or phone contact to get in touch with Herefordians because: “...nobody uses the internet round here.”

Herefordshire is a sparse, rural county with an aging population, people will tell me. Almost always, of course, these are internet users themselves. They are talking about other people, often hypothetical people, who don’t use the internet

If they are correct, internet use will presumably be much lower here than in other parts of the UK?

It isn’t though, according to recently published data from the Office for National Statistics.

Herefordshire has high levels of Internet use

92.8% of people aged 16 or over in Herefordshire use the internet.

This is a higher proportion of the population using the internet than you find in three-quarters of the council areas in England.

The change between 2017 and 2018 is quite dramatic. Last year 75% of council areas had a higher rate of internet use, this year 75% of them have a lower rate.

There is some uncertainty in this figure. It comes from a survey and there is a risk that the ONS might accidentally be missing people who don’t use the internet. Like good statisticians they have given us a range around that headline figure. The level of internet use in Herefordshire could be between 88% and 98%, but it’s more likely to be close to 92.8%

What about the neighbours?

Compared to neighbouring areas, Herefordshire does seem to have high internet use. Only Monmouthshire and Newport are higher.

This is all very good news.

Why is internet use high?

These figures tell us that internet use in Herefordshire looks high. They don’t tell us what has led to it being high. I imagine Herefordshire Council would point to its investment in the Fastershire scheme, which is bringing broadband to lots of parts of the county. Is that responsible?

Certainly more and more people have access to superfast broadband according to OfCom.

One way of investigating this is to look at what we would expect internet use to be in Herefordshire, if the council hadn’t done anything. The ONS figures tell us, across the UK, what % of men and women at different ages use the internet. Using those figures and the age and sex breakdown for Herefordshire, we can get a figure for what we might expect internet use to be.

The number of people we would expect to use the internet if Herefordians used the internet at the normal rate for people of their age and sex across the UK. 

Using that (admittedly crude) model we might expect 87% of adults to use the internet. Much lower than the 93% figure the ONS found.

This doesn’t prove that Fastershire made the difference but it does suggest Herefordshire is genuinely out-performing the rest of the UK.

How do people get online?

It’s easier to find a 3G mobile signal in the county every year. Ofcom reckons that less than 2% of the county doesn’t have a reliable 3G signal from at least one operator. That sounds good, though that doesn’t mean that you’ll get a signal on your network in 98% of the county.

It's easier to get superfast fixed line broadband as well.

How high could we go?

Let’s look in the other direction then.

Which areas have the highest levels of Internet use in the UK? How high could we expect internet use to get in Herefordshire.

When we look at the top ten we see some London Boroughs which might not surprise us, but we also see rural areas like Oxfordshire, Berkshire and North Hampshire with higher internet use than Herefordshire.

It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine we could get to much higher levels.

Can we get our oldest citizens on-line?

To do that we might need to focus our effort on the over 75s. They have the lowest internet use of any age group. There are loads of reasons why having much higher internet use amongst the oldest in our community might bring many benefits. Internet technology can help people keep in touch with each other, it can make social care and health services more effective, and it can reduce the cost of providing a whole range of services.

So is now the time to focus on getting over 75's in Herefordshire online?

(Image is Man Made Tree? by Kelvin Pulker used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)