Aust & NZ
digital divides in
This page looks at digital divides in Australia.
It covers -
As in other advanced economies, debate in Australia about
digital divides has centred on the physical availability
of infrastructure (in particular broadband) and pricing
that permits comprehensive consumer access to that infrastructure,
rather than concerns regarding education, disability or
other barriers. Such concerns are highlighted in works such
as Tony Vinson's Dropping Off The Edge (Melbourne:
Jesuit Social Services 2007) which offer a caution in considering
rhetoric that there is a single divide or that all divides
can be bridged merely by providing infrastructure.
In July 2006 the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission
(ACCC) released its quarterly Snapshot of Broadband
Deployment report, claiming that broadband connections
in Australia had passed the three million mark, with 3,161,600
broadband services connected across the country. That was
up 78% over the preceding year.
The statistics highlighted in the Internet Metrics &
Statistics guide suggest that -
54% of Australian households had access to the net (the
apparent discrepancy in NOIE and other figures reflects
access via work)
access at home was via narrowband, as of the first Quarter
connections passed the three million mark in early 2006
of adults (ie people of age 16 years and over) "had
access" to the net during that Quarter, although
the number and duration of sessions online varied considerably
of all business had access (81% of large businesses and
34% of small business had web sites)
has been significant normalisation of the online population
since 1997 - which now has similar demographics to those
of the population at large - but 'power users' are still
predominantly young, male, earning in excess of $75,000,
employed, and living in metropolitan areas.
low incomes, without tertiary education, living in rural/remote
areas, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage,
with disabilities, with a language background other than
English, and aged over 55 are less likely to be online.
Why? Barriers to online access include set-up and access
costs, lack of physical access, disinterest/confidence or
perceptions of irrelevance, security concerns, lack of skills/training
What about infrastructure? Despite the size of Australia,
its population is one of the most concentrated in the world.
1998 figures from the Australian Communications Authority
suggested that 63% of Australia's total 6.8 million households
are located in the eight State and Territory capital cities,
28% in regional provincial centres and 9% in rural and remote
areas. An estimated 83% of all Australian households were
within five kilometres of an exchange.
A 1997 note by the Australian Bureau of Statistics highlighted
that a substantial proportion of the population at that
time had neither a computer nor a telephone:
phone, computer and modem
but no computer and modem
and computer but no modem
computer and modem
were some 575,000 Disability Pensioners in 1999.
indigenous and other users
Figures for use of the net (and ICT) by indigenous Australians
and Torres Strait Islanders are problematical, given the
thinness of much of the data and uncertainty about particular
The Australian Bureau of Statistics noted a marked difference
between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in use
of information technology in the week preceding the 2001
census, including -
home computer use - 18% of Indigenous population, 44%
of non-Indigenous population
home internet use - 9% of Indigenous population, 29% of
use overall - 16% of Indigenous population, 39% of non-Indigenous
difference between males and females in use of IT within
both populations is reported as being small. Slightly more
Indigenous females (19%) than Indigenous males (17%) had
used a computer at home, whereas more males (46%) than females
(43%) in the non-Indigenous population had used a computer
at home. The difference in the rate of IT use among Indigenous
and non-Indigenous youth was substantial: 28% of Indigenous
15-17 year olds had used a computer at home, compared with
75% of non-Indigenous teenagers in the same age cohort,
with internet use at 29% versus 70% respectively. Indigenous
persons living in Very Remote areas were least likely to
have used IT, with 3% of the 71,100 Indigenous persons in
those areas having used a computer at home, 1% had used
the net at home and 4% had used the net overall.
The June 2010 'IT Use and Innovation in Australian Business'
report from the ABS suggested that 90.5% of Australian businesses
had "internet access" in 2008/9 (up from 86.8%
in the preceding year). 41.5% had a web presence (up from
36.3%). 95% of those employing 200 or more persons had a
web presence. 46% placed orders via the net. 27% received
orders via the net.
Jennifer Curtin's 2001 research brief
on A Digital Divide in Rural and Regional Australia?
for the federal parliament's library concentrates on the
bush, at the expense of divides within major metropolitan
areas, but explores political questions elided in most studies.
Suzanne Willis & Bruce Tranter's nuanced 'Beyond the
'digital divide': Internet diffusion and inequality in Australia'
(42 Journal of Sociology, 2006), which builds on
their 2002 Beyond the Digital Divide: Socio-Economic
Dimensions of Internet Diffusion in Australia (PDF)
The 2000 'NATSEM' report
for Telstra on Sociodemographic Barriers to Telecommunications
Use argues that the Australian 'digital divide' is one
of income and social situation, not geography - questioning
the government's concern with supply to rural areas. It
was prepared by the Communications Law Centre (CLC), Australian
Council of Social Services (ACOSS) and National Centre for
Social & Economic Modelling.
The report builds on the Access to electronic commerce
and new service and information technologies for older Australians
and people with a disability report
by the Australian Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission
and the landmark 1999 report
(PDF) on Web Sites for Rural Australia: Designing for
Accessibility by the Rural Industries Research &
Development Corporation (RIRDC).
The latter highlighted issues relating to regional use of
the web, including uncertain (and expensive connections),
slow download times and older machines or browsers.
NATSEM's significant because it highlights the divide within
metropolitan and regional Australia, in contrast to federal
government initiatives focussed on 'the bush' (and Tasmania).
It argues that the Australian 'digital divide' is one of
income and social situation, not geography per se that use
of the net had little link with where people lived. CLC
Director Jock Given commented that
data on Indigenous disadvantage is provided in the Productivity
Commission's 2007 report
Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2007.
For base data about the 'disabled' see the 2004 study
on Children With Disabilities In Australia.
kinds of measures will not be enough to bridge the digital
divide. Low-income earners, the unemployed and the elderly
have not even connected to the net. If you are poor or
lack good education it is not going to make much difference
how many satellites we put in the sky or how many cables
we run past your house. A broader and more complex social
policy agenda is going to be necessary if Australia is
to seriously address the root causes of its digital divide.
There is a digital divide in Australia with the key factors
education, level of income, age and the presence of children
in a household ... if you are unable to participate in
... activities (on the Internet), there is a broadly held
concern that this will be increasingly significant from
the view point of social and economic opportunity.
Earlier research includes the 2004 Productivity Commission
on International Benchmarking of Remote, Rural and Urban
The 2001 Building Bridges over the Digital Divide report
from the Commonwealth Human Rights & Equal Opportunity
provides an overview of "the considerable progress made
by government, industry and the community in making electronic
commerce more accessible to older Australians and people with
Close examination of the review and its laundry list of recommendations
(including implementation by Commonwealth agencies of legislation
and cabinet decisions) suggests that there's a long way to
The report coincided with publication by the Australian Bankers'
of a Disability Action Plan, including a 16 page Draft
Industry Standard on Internet Banking (here),
and the report (txt)
of the ACT Digital Divide Task Force.
The Digital Divide page
of the National Office for the Information Economy makes interesting
initiatives to encourage greater competition in the telecommunications
market; grants programs to fund the development of telecommunications
infrastructure, community access facilities and training;
a range of educational skills development initiatives;
and providing government services electronically in ways
that enable access for all sectors of the community, including
line with the January 1999 Strategic Framework for the
Information Economy (StratF)
and the Digital Divide Cross Sector Working Group (CSWG)
convened by Cisco Systems to "foster greater collaboration
and shared learning around Digital Divide projects in Australia."
At the national level those initiatives included -
the Networking the Nation (NTN)
program and associated Social Bonus programs such as the
New Connections Toolkit,
with $592 million from Telstra's sale to upgrade regional,
rural and remote telecommunications
5-year, $70 million rural transaction centre program of
the Dept of Transport & Regional Services to help
small, rural communities establish 'community access centres'
as gateways to basic services such as banking, post, phone,
fax, the net, Medicare and of course Centrelink.
Education & Training Action Plan for the Information
Economy with funding of up to $5 million for an Information
Technology & Telecommunications (IT&T) Skills
Exchange and a Computers for Schools initiative
through which "surplus Commonwealth and State government
computers are donated to government and non-government
schools .... To date, approximately 18,000 computers have
found their way to deserving schools." Undeserving
ones buy their own?
Government Online Strategy, a whole-of-government
approach for wiring the federal bureaucracy, reflecting
the Prime Minister's commitment that "the Commonwealth
will bring all appropriate services online via the Internet
Cross Sector Working Group comprises 30 corporate, community
and government organisations "endeavouring to encourage
collaboration on Digital Divide projects, and to create
an ongoing forum for the exchange of ideas and identifying
new project opportunities to tackle digital exclusion in
Australia" using the Digital Dividend clearinghouse
(an entity that ceased to operate in 2006 as sponsors suffered
digital divide fatigue).
NOIE's October 2000 E-Commerce Across Australia report
argued that e-commerce would neutralise the tyranny of distance
and place us all on a level footing in the global marketplace.
That report was problematical but is of interest as an expression
of digital boosterism around the time of the dot-com bubble
and for its analysis of potential impacts on regional Australia.
In June 2003 the national government announced a response
to the independent Regional Telecommunication ('Estens')
Inquiry, indicating that it "accepted all 39 recommendations
of the Inquiry and developed a comprehensive response which
included 'future proofing' regional Australian telecommunications".
In 2004 the federal government announced a National Broadband
and associated Action Plan, followed shortly thereafter
by news that the National Office for the Information Economy
was to become the Australian Government Information Management
Office (AGIMO). The NBS was promoted as providing access
to affordable broadband services in regional Australia and
was accompanied by sectoral programs such as the Department
of Health & Ageing 'Access to Broadband Technology Initiative',
later the Broadband for Health Program.
The NBS Action Plan
to improve the price and increase the availability of
broadband services in regional, rural and remote Australia,
with a particular focus on consumers, SMEs and the health
and education sectors.
sense of its band-aid approach (and rebadging of past measures)
can be gained by considering the "key elements ...
already underway" -
a $107.8 million Higher Bandwidth Incentive Scheme (HiBIS)
to ensure the wider availability of affordable broadband
services by providing subsidies to service providers
$23.7 million Coordinated Communications Infrastructure
Fund (CCIF) to build on broadband infrastructure developments
in key public sector areas such as health and education
$8.3 million demand aggregation broker program to consolidate
demand for broadband services at a regional and sectoral
level to attract additional infrastructure investment.
The business and social costs of divides in Australia are
anyone's guess and are necessarily contentious.
Back-of-an-envelope estimates of the cost of rolling out
broadband across Australia have ranged from $20 billion
in the early 1990s to a more recent $50 billion.
Given our view of a range of divides - ie more than just
fibre-to-the-home (ftth) - the real cost would be higher,
potentially embracing reduced access charges, training,
personal computers and other spending. We have highlighted
particular issues in the complementary profile on the Australian
and New Zealand telecommunications sector.
In contrast to North America, where there has been a proliferation
of advocacy groups concerned with domestic and overseas
divides (one Toronto contact characterised it as a festival
of pigs at the pastry cart), there has been surprisingly
little ongoing lobbying regarding Australian digital divides.
Arguably that is because conceptualisation of divides has
been 'captured' by the often arid debate about privatisation
and regulation of Telstra, often pitched as 'looking after
the bush' through provision of cheap broadband connectivity.
Discussion about other divides has been very muted.
Civil society advocates include -
Telecommunications Network | here
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