Internet connectivity is essential for prosperity and development in all societies. This policy-focused report is the culmination of a qualitative study of digital connectivity and telecommunications in rural Far North Queensland (FNQ). In particular, the research investigated the lived experience of digital inclusion – a combination of internet access, affordability of technology, and digital ability - in agricultural households and communities the Northern Gulf region. The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) shows that North West Queensland (which takes in the Gulf Savannah) is one of Australia's least digitally included regions. The ADII further suggests that farmers and farm managers tend to score more poorly in the Index than others in comparable circumstances, particularly on the digital ability sub-index. This research aimed to unpack how these quantitative insights 'play out' in the context of rural FNQ, thereby shedding light on the nuanced and context-specific factors that impact digital participation of farming households and communities.
In 2018, with funding from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), James Cook University partnered with Northern Gulf Resource Management Group to complete three week-long data fieldtrips to towns and properties across the Gulf Savannah. The lead researcher, Dr Amber Marshall, attended and presented at rural events, undertook interviews and focus groups, and conducted three case studies of cattle properties. These activities provided real world context for the policy analysis undertaken in this report. This cross-level, cross-sector policy analysis was undertaken to determine the laws and strategies that impact rural and remote internet access, reliability and affordability, along with digital ability and capacity building frameworks.
The findings (11 in total) address issues ranging from barriers to connection (such as lack of continuity in the telecommunications network); social factors impacting digital resource allocation and consumption (such as intergenerational and gender-related circumstances); threats to agricultural industry (such as the need to preserve product integrity and to attract/train workers); and consumer-level insights (such as population heterogeneity and expectations of fairness).
These comprehensive findings give rise to several recommendations for federal, state and local governments in partnership with community and industry organisations. These include:
- Improve basic infrastructure and services at local scales, including diversifying service plans to meet specific needs
- Embrace alternative connectivity infrastructure, whereby state and federal government partners with the regions to collaboratively fill infrastructure and service gaps
- Redefine affordability at the federal level, to ensure the true cost of being connected in the bush is realised and accommodated
- Deliver targeted digital capability building programs to address many farmers' thirst for digital skills
- Develop digital mentors, support brokers and upskill remote workers, to help ensure digital skills programs are relevant and rolled out in situ
- Empower rural local governments and community organisations to plan and deliver through strategic linkages with the broader national digital inclusion ecosystem
- Adopt principles for a holistic approach to digital inclusion policy that recognises the critical role of digital capacity building to social and economic development in rural and agricultural Australia.