Digital inclusion challenges for Australia

Earlier this week I presented a paper at the Communications Policy and Research Forum in Sydney entitled  “Digital Inclusion in the Broadband World: Challenges for Australia”.

I include a summary of the paper below.  You can read the full paper (or download) here:  Don Perlgut Digital Inclusion paper CPRF 7Nov2011.  A (slightly shorter) copy of my paper is also available through the Communications Policy and Research Forum website.

The paper discusses the potentially looming “digital participation gap” in Australia, if concerted efforts are not commenced soon to make certain that poor, remote and vulnerable communities in Australia are not actively included in the fast internet roll-out.  I examine the NBN Co roll-out timing and assumptions, ask the question “why broadband?”, analyse the characteristics of “non-adopters” and those at risk of not connecting to broadband internet, review two pilot “digital inclusion” initiatives (one in Australia and one in the USA), and make a number of recommendations that will enhance digital inclusion efforts in Australia.

Now that Australia’s much-discussed National Broadband Network (NBN) is underway, many people assume that it is just a matter of time before we are all fully connected. In fact, the NBN broadband roll-out appears to assume that more than 20 percent of Australian “premises” (households and businesses) will NOT be broadband-connected by 2025: my paper details the background to this assumption. The concept of  “digital divide” 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”.

Those Australians most at risk of digital exclusion are poor, Indigenous, elderly, disabled or living in rural or remote areas of Australia.  The publicity surrounding the development and construction of the NBN has created what I call “the Kevin Costner effect”, named after the 1989 film Field of Dreams (directed by Phil Alden Robinson), in which Costner starred.  The famous “tag line” of that film is “if you build it, they will come”.  However one problem caused by the NBN – which is in fact a visionary piece of public infrastructure the envy of many other countries, despite some internal Australian critics – is that just because you build it, it is certain that a large number will not come.  Internet access does and will cost money, and it will take some level of finance, technical expertise and digital literacy to gain and maintain that access.

My conclusions:
1. Within five years, digital exclusion will rival all other social and economic determinants, and may become the major social justice challenge of our time.

2. Digital inclusion cannot be separated from economic and social inclusion, and will become a major factor in assisting (or losing) social and economic justice.

3. In the digital world, place still matters – rural/remote as well as locational access to education, health and economic opportunity.

4. As identified at the beginning of this paper, Indigenous peoples, under-educated, poor, elderly, disabled, rural and remote residents are all uniquely vulnerable.

5. We need to shift the household broadband adoption focus from entertainment consumption to economic production.

6. A “whole of society” effort required for proper inclusion – simply putting it all on “government” is not the answer.

And my recommendations:

1. Comprehensive research into broadband adoption in Australia is needed, including the characteristics of non-adopters and the barriers to adoption.

2.  Consideration of low-cost, subsidised (free) broadband wireless networks in parts of Sydney, Melbourne and other large cities with concentrations of poorer-residents.

3.  We also need to consider a fully subsidised broadband service for everyone over age 65, as that group is particularly vulnerable, and there are already precedents and systems in place.

4.  Comprehensive digital inclusion plan is needed that will parallel and complement the NBN roll-out and incorporate current DBCDE efforts.

5.  Proper metrics for digital inclusion efforts are needed.  Not just numbers, but economic and social development, impact on health, education and welfare and “social capital”.

6.  It is important to identify one national government organisation with responsibility for promoting digital inclusion in Australia – at this point, I vote for ACMA, as it has an “outward-facing” capability and is already operating in the area.

Updates on 23 and 29 November 2011:  This paper is now featured on “Stories we are following” on the website of the New York-based “Intelligent Community Forum” and linked to from the website of BuddeComm.

7 Responses to Digital inclusion challenges for Australia

  1. […] few days ago, I posted a copy of my presentation (“Digital Inclusion in the Broadband World: Challenges for Australia…at last week’s Communications Policy and Research Forum (CPRF), which took place in Sydney on […]

  2. […] Australia.  This post discusses my digital inclusion ideas, which are also detailed in my posts of November 10th and November 14th. LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  3. […] My paper on digital inclusion – presented to the Communications Policy and Research conference on 7 November 2011 – has been posted online on the prestigious “Australian Policy Online” (APO) website, which is managed by Australian National University and Swinburne University of Technology. […]

  4. Chris Conder says:

    Excellent report, but I think the same thing is happening all over the world, not just in Australia. At least you are building a new network, many so called ‘civilised’ countries are continuing to patch up their old phone networks. You will have the opportunity to lead the world if you keep it up.
    I agree with all of your statements, but I don’t think more research is needed to find out more about the refuseniks. They will use it once it is ubiquitous, affordable and easy. It is our job to make it so.
    Once fibre connectivity is available everywhere it is sensible to put wifi clouds there too, these can be free, low speed services to entice people to engage, or high speed charged services for mobile workers.
    There is no point in trying to engage folk or do research if the connectivity isn’t there. We have found that out in the UK.
    Get it built. Get it working. Get cheap connections as a taster for the better ones. Like any utility, the basics should be available for everyone. But if you want a swimming pool you should expect to pay more for the person who only fills a sink.

  5. […] I write in my paper on digital inclusion in Australia, digital literacy is only one of many barriers to full digital participation, but it certainly is […]

  6. […] my recent (November 2011) presentation to the Communications Policy and Research Forum in Sydney (click here for details of this paper, including a link to the full downloadable paper), I called this belief of building and the coming […]

  7. […] have put a submission to this review, which is in part based on my digital inclusion paper, but extends the discussion further with particular regard to rural and remote Australia.  My […]

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