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.
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.
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.