Digital participation gap looms

| January 16, 2012

The continuing expansion of the National Broadband Network (NBN) is keeping both a political and technological focus on access to broadband internet services. However, Don Perlgut warns that parallel attention needs to be paid to efforts that will ameliorate a looming digital participation gap in this country.

I recently sent a submission to the Federal Government’s Rural Telecommunications Review, which was informed by my experience as the former CEO of the Rural Health Education Foundation. I also drew parts of the submission from a paper I presented to the Communications Policy and Research Forum on November 7.

I particularly focussed on the looming ‘digital participation gap’ in Australia, with specific reference to rural and remote Australia. This gap will soon become apparent if efforts are not made soon to ensure that poor, remote and vulnerable communities in Australia are actively included in the fast internet roll-out.

Now that Australia’s much-discussed National Broadband Network (NBN) is underway, many people have assumed that it is just a matter of time before we are all fully connected. To participate in the modern world, people require not only substantial broadband access with appropriate technology, but also connective gadgetry, digital literacy and the resources to pay for it all.

Many people simply do not have these connections – broadly termed ‘digital inclusion’ – and I estimate that some twenty percent of Australians will not achieve them without substantial intervention and assistance. This fact has slipped from the public radar in recent years under the onslaught of smart phones, iPads, other tablets and the bewildering and growing collection of digital devices that will operate under the law of ‘if it can be connected, it probably will’.

Unfortunately there appears to be limited awareness that it will take a concerted public policy push – engaging the public, private, non-profit and philanthropic sectors – to create a just digital society in Australia.

The experience of deep exclusion in Australian society
Those Australians most at risk of digital exclusion are poor, Indigenous, elderly, disabled or living in rural or remote areas.  According to Peter Saunders, in his book Down and Out: Poverty and Exclusion in Australia (2011), there are five groups at particular risk – the unemployed, public renters, lone parents, Indigenous Australians, and private renters.

When a person, family or household falls into more than one of these groups, they are at particular risk of being excluded from Australian society. According to Saunders, “deep exclusion exists when individuals experience a number of different forms of exclusion simultaneously”. Deep exclusion results from compounded economic, social and locational disadvantage.  Individuals living in rural and remote Australia are at significantly greater risk of deep exclusion than those living in metropolitan areas.

Digital Inclusion and Digital Access
Digital inclusion is the ability of individuals and groups to access and use information and communication technologies. It not only includes access to the internet, but availability of hardware and software, relevant content and services, and training for digital literacy skills.

To achieve full civic engagement and social, economic and educational participation, digital inclusion is required. To achieve this, I operate from four assumptions adapted from the University of Washington’s Digitally Inclusive Communities Framework:

  1. Broadband is a societal game-changer, with profound and long-lasting impacts.
  2. Advanced digital technology can and will enable economic and social well-being.
  3. Digital inclusiveness is a worthwhile public policy goal to mobilise public and private resources.
  4. Digitally inclusive communities require the involvement of all sectors – public and private as well as the ‘third sector’ (philanthropic).

Broadband-Connected Australia
The NBN Corporate Plan provides detail that allows us to analyse the NBN roll-out assumptions. On the basis of NBNCo’s own figures, it appears it is anticipating a ‘broadband connected’ total of 76.6% of all Australian premises in 2025. In other words, the NBN Business Plan assumes that 23.4% of Australian premises will NOT have broadband in 2025.

At the November 2011 Communications Policy and Research Forum, Joseph DiGregorio of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) presented 2011 comparative data on Australia household broadband connections. The results are not surprising: the ACT comes in as the winner at 75% broadband-connected. Next on the ladder are Brisbane (74% broadband connections), Perth (73%), Melbourne (72%), Darwin/Alice Springs (71%) and Sydney (69%). What is even more telling – and troubling – are those at the bottom of the Australian broadband connection percentages, proving what we suspected: that there is a substantial rural-metropolitan divide – Hobart sits at 61% and Tasmania outside of Hobart at 55% and followed by rural South Australia (62%), and rural Victoria and rural New South Wales (65%).

These metro/rural figures are significant, and consistently so. In fact, in every state the household broadband connectivity of non-capital city regions are about ten percentage points lower below than the major metropolitan areas. Tasmania is an exception, primarily because the Hobart connection numbers are so low to begin with. No figures are available for non-metro Northern Territory because of small numbers, but if data were available, presumably these would be extremely low because of the large number of remote communities where broadband connectivity often does not exist.

Characteristics of Broadband Adoption
The major access dividing lines for broadband connectivity are education, income, age/disability, literacy and location (rural/remote). As the NBN website states:

“Current data indicates that the number of Australians who have never used the internet is higher among those people living in regional and remote areas. For example, 34 per cent of people from outer regional and remote areas aged 15 and over did not use the internet in 2008-09, compared with only 23 per cent of people in Australia’s major cities. Data indicates that 29.7 per cent of businesses located outside of capital cities have a web presence, compared with 39.5 per cent of business located in capital cities”.

A team from Edith Cowan University in Western Australia has studied internet usage in rural Australia, and summarised the difficulties:

“The take-up of national broadband facilities, particularly in regional and remote areas, is a complex, multi-factorial scenario in which personal and organizational decisions are shaped by physical, cultural, economic and political elements. The vast distances and extremes of climate in the Australian outback provide physical obstacles, the sparse population reduces the economic viability of these services and the community based culture of an aging population resists computer-mediated communication.”

The Importance of Literacy
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) identifies four adult literacy domains – prose, document, numeracy and problem-solving. Of those four, two – prose and document literacy – are most closely associated with digital literacy. Some 17% of adult Australians have poor prose literacy and 18% poor document literacy – sufficiently poor to impact on daily life. Thus literacy is a key element in preventing full digital participation.  This has particular relevance to Indigenous Australians.

Broadband and Indigenous Australians
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Indigenous) Australians face particular problems in accessing telecommunications services. As a group, they experience multidimensional poverty through a combination of extreme poverty, poor housing, poor health, poor educational attainment and poor security, in additional to cultural and other social and cultural differences. Literacy levels are also well below non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians make up approximately 550,000 population (2.5% of all Australians), but only 32% live in capital cities – again an additional factor which adds to their digital and telecommunications disadvantage as a group.

Research presented at the CPRF conference by Swinburne University researchers indicates that only a fraction of remote Indigenous Australians use the internet, much less have access to broadband.

As the Indigenous Literacy Foundation reports: “There is an enormous gap in the English literacy rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia. The gap is even wider for Indigenous people living in remote and isolated communities.”

Non-Adoption of Broadband
The Horrigan report (2010) for the United States Federal Communications Commission (2010) identifies four categories of non-adopters of broadband:

  • ‘digitally distant’ (10%) see no point in being online;
  • ‘digital hopefuls’ (8%) want to be online but lack resources and/or comfort;
  • ‘digitally uncomfortable’ (7%) have resources but lack skills and interest; and
  • ‘near converts’ (10%) want to be online and may already have dial-up access, are younger but worried about the monthly cost.

These four categories are important because different strategies are required for those falling into different segments, and are helpful in working out Australian strategies.

I predict that within five years, digital exclusion will rival all other social and economic determinants, and may become the major social justice challenge of our time.

Digital inclusion cannot be separated from economic and social inclusion, and will become a major factor in assisting (or losing) social and economic justice. In the digital world, place still matters – ‘rurality’ and ‘remoteness’ as well as locational access to education, health and economic opportunity. Indigenous peoples, along with those who are under-educated, poor, elderly, disabled and living in rural and remote locations are all uniquely vulnerable.  A ‘whole of society’ effort is required for proper inclusion; simply putting it all on the government is not the answer. However, the Commonwealth Government will need to take the lead and set the tone for what will be a long national campaign.

Recently the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network presented its Second Report on the Six Monthly Review of the Rollout of the National Broadband Network. Recommendation 5 of this report states:

“The committee recommends that the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and the NBN Co undertake a study of methods to improve access for low income households and other disadvantaged groups to the National Broadband Network and report its findings to the committee; in conducting the study, include examination of community proposals for measures which would support a basic broadband account and a broadband low income measure scheme.”

I strongly endorse this recommendation, and add a number of my own:

  • Comprehensive research into broadband adoption in Australia is needed, including the characteristics of non-adopters and the barriers to adoption.
  • A comprehensive digital inclusion plan is needed that will parallel and complement the NBN roll-out and incorporate current pilot DBCDE efforts.
  • It is important to identify one national government organisation with responsibility for promoting digital inclusion: I nominate the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), as it has an ‘outward-facing’ capability and is already operating in the area.
  • National efforts can only be successful with on-the-ground activities provided by and through local government, a sector which has already shown strong interest in digital participation efforts.

Don Perlgut is a communications expert, film critic and not-for-profit organisational leader, currently the Chief Executive Officer of Community Colleges Australia. He holds a PhD in media from Macquarie University and Masters of City Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. He regularly blogs at