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Working paper

Women's electronic networking: building social capital in rural communities

15 Jun 1999

elecommunications are being redefined internationally to meet a diverse range of economic and social expectations from a variety of different stakeholders. Emerging from this process of redefinition is a clear sense of the importance of ensuring that the interests of these stakeholders are heard in the planning, implementation and management of telecommunications. In Australia, the direct relationship between improved communication, information access and social and economic development (World Bank 1995) is gradually being accepted by stakeholders, from governments through to individual community members.

Access to advanced communications and information systems is increasingly being seen as critical for both economic and social well-being of communities in Australia and across the globe. In addition, such systems are being viewed as a vehicle for maximising economic opportunities, ensuring international competitiveness (Barlow 1997) and 'build[ing] a better, more prosperous and fairer Australia' (Innovate Australia 1995). Implicit in this notion of a 'fairer Australia' is recognition that the technology promise must be inclusive of all Australians, regardless of geographic locality. Thus, the report of the Information Policy Advisory Council (1997) is about 'deploying the true miracles of the communications and information revolution to transform rural Australia, to break down the barriers between metropolitan and country Australia, and ... to create new futures for all Australians'. The Council looks to a future when all Australians are 'location independent' in terms of access to affordable services, closeness to each other and to the worlds of learning, commerce, healthy living and entertainment.

Yet extensive national studies have identified constraints on the development of electronic information systems for rural Australians from the user's perspective (Buckridge 1996, Easdown 1997, Grace, Lundin and Daws 1996, Share 1993, Wilson and QRRAC 1995). The main barriers identified include inadequate telecommunications infrastructure; affordability of access to electronic information; and restricted access to education, training and user support services needed to empower the majority of the rural population. Given these constraints and the fact that there is a strong correlation between a nation's telecommunications infrastructure development and its wealth in terms of Gross Domestic Product (Madden et al. 1997, Buckridge 1995), rural communities continue to be disadvantaged in terms of exploiting the potential of new communication technologies. This can be partly attributed to the imbalance that exists between rural Australia's economic contribution and its involvement in centralised decision-making processes regarding the provision of services, including telecommunications services.

Although rural Australians represent a small proportion of the total population - between one-seventh and one-third[1] (Sher and Sher 1994) - they are directly responsible for approximately 42 per cent of Australian export earnings[2]. Traditionally, 'rural and remote Australia has been a long suffering recipient of inappropriate urban services and urban modes of delivery' (Barlow 1997: 4). Significantly, this planning regime continues its momentum with the development and delivery of new telecommunications services and new communication and information technologies. This is more than apparent in the decision concerning the Universal Service Obligation, which only applies to basic rather than advanced telecommunications services. However, awareness of these issues and political sensitivity to them has been reflected in more recent federal and state government policies and in the policies of Telstra, the main service provider. For example, Telstra has advanced the progress of its Future Mode of Operations by three years; the Department of Communication and the Arts has established a special Rural Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund; and the Universal Service Obligation is being redefined to include transmission of digital services as well as basic voice transmission.

What is also central to this argument is an acceptance that decisions regarding technological infrastructure are based on recognition that there is interdependence amongst political, social, cultural and economic systems in the introduction of new technologies. Thus, the potential for future uptake should incorporate the supply and consumption of interactive communication technologies relevant to the 'way people are most likely to work, communicate, play, buy and pay for things, rather than of the technological possibilities in the development of interactive communication technologies' (Singh et al. 1996: 4). This also includes the reconsideration of 'demand' in the context of 'use' rather than industry's understanding of demand as 'price' (Singh et al. 1996). Adopting community development as a method to inform service delivery models and telecommunications policy is a way forward in establishing appropriate telecommunications for rural and remote communities. Encompassing community development facilitates the participation of rural communities, enabling them to increasingly play a role in determining the nature and extent of the telecommunications resources available to them.

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