Digital inclusion in the broadband world: challenges for Australia

8 December 2011

The potentially looming 'digital participation gap' in Australia requires concerted efforts to ensure that poor, remote and vulnerable communities in Australia are not actively included in the fast internet roll-out.

This 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. The paper:

  • examines the NBN Co roll-out timing and assumptions;
  • asks the question 'why broadband?';
  • analyses the characteristics of 'non-adopters' and those at risk of not connecting to broadband internet;
  • reviews two pilot 'digital inclusion' initiatives (one in Australia and one in the USA); and
  • makes 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. 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 film Field of Dreams, which Costner starred in.   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. This paper examines these issues.

This paper was presented at the Communications Policy and Research Forum Sydney, November 7, 2011.  More forum papers are available here>

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