Australia's digital divide means 2.8 million people remain 'highly excluded' from internet access – ABC News

Australia's digital divide means 2.8 million people remain 'highly excluded' from internet access
Follow the results as votes in the US midterms are counted
For the latest flood and weather warnings, search on ABC Emergency
At a house in the remote Kimberley, a woman waves her phone in the air for hours trying to get a signal to pay a bill.
A man has his bank account shut down due to a dodgy phone line which raises suspicions about scammers.
And at a picturesque farm, families faced with sudden, shocking deaths are unable to phone an ambulance.
These scenes are playing out in regional Australia, where residents unable to access phone and internet services struggle to keep up with a world moving rapidly online.
The latest data shows 11 per cent of Australians are "highly excluded" from digital services, meaning they do not have access to affordable internet or don't know how to use it.
That equates to about 2.8 million people.
So how are they coping as government and bank services move online?
"It's becoming a major issue for people living in communities where they can't access online services, and it became very apparent during the COVID pandemic," RMIT University researcher Daniel Featherstone said.
"It's limiting people's ability to participate in society and access services that they need for their lives – we're talking about some of the vulnerable, low-income people in the country not able to access the services designed to assist them."
Digital connectivity is a fancy phrase describing whether people can access affordable internet that they understand how to use.
National data shows rates are steadily increasing, but there are groups in society falling behind.
People in capital cities are more likely to be online than those in regional areas, and unsurprisingly, low-income earners struggle to connect.
There are different reasons for the digital divide – many older Australians lack online literacy, while in some areas a lack of infrastructure limits options.
One example is the Mimbi community, on Gooniyandi country in remote northern Western Australia.
Increasingly frequent phone and internet outages plaguing Central Australia's remote Ampilatwatja community leave residents without a way to contact the local health clinic and police in emergencies.
It has a single public phone box but no mobile phone tower.
Local tour guide Ronnie Jimbidie says the main concern is not being able to call for help in an emergency.
"We do get bad things happening, snakebites and bushfire and accidents can happen and we need that service, we need that phone thing happening at all times," he says.
Ronnie and his wife have installed the community's only internet connection, to run their tourism business.
"The neighbours come over all the time to use it, which can be annoying," he says. 
"It would be great to get a phone tower or public wi-fi, that everyone could use."
The federal government has committed to making all of its services available online by 2025, leading to concern that Australians without internet will be further disadvantaged.
It is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into improving regional telecommunications, and Social Services Minister Bill Shorten says there are be safety nets in place.
"It is a challenge – a lot of Australians are moving online, no question," Mr Shorten told the ABC.
"But there are a proportion of people who still like to use their Services Australia offices.
"There are 318 offices left , and we are committed to keeping to that number, so that we don't see any reduction in the number of Centrelink and Medicare offices beyond what we've inherited."
While that will come as a relief to those in metro areas, it is little consolation to those living far from face-to-face services.
The explosion of internet service delivery is an exciting prospect for people living remotely.
But the first ever audit of remote community telecommunications is revealing just how far there is to go before residents will be able to take up the opportunities offered.
Mapping the Digital Divide is four-year project funded by Telstra and the Australian Research Council measuring the quality of telecommunications in Australia's 1,200 remote Aboriginal communities.
Dr Daniel Featherstone says the team has found some alarming situations.
"I think Australians would be very surprised if they went to one of these remote communities and tried their normal day-to-day use of their mobile or internet — they'd be very, very frustrated," he said.
"They'd probably also be shocked that people are still relying on public phone boxes – it's a real eye-opener."
At one community, a man had his bank account shut down, because the phone line was so scratchy the call-centre suspected he was a scammer.
He had to fly 500 kilometres to reopen the account in person.
The first results show alarmingly low scores for digital inclusion in sample communities.
The Pormpuraaw community in Queensland scored 37 out of 100, which is 25 per cent below the national average. 
Remote residents have described their frustration trying to do simple daily tasks like paying a bill or making a medical appointment.
At the Muludja community, Katrina Cherel can only get phone reception on a small corner of her balcony verandah.
"The only bit of coverage comes from the local school, so we just wave our phones around in the air trying to get signal, but often it doesn't work," she says.
"I know some of the communities around here have a mobile phone tower, which would be good.
"We've been waiting a while and with everything going online, we need to have something out here too."
Residents can get online by signing up for the Sky Muster satellite system.
But in an area of low incomes and high living costs, few families can afford it.
Some Kimberley residents have given up trying to start an account, because a resident's address is required when few Aboriginal communities have street names or numbers.
It is not just remote communities struggling.
In the WA town of Fitzroy Crossing, the Nindilingarri Cultural Health Service is stuck with a sluggish internet connection that struggles to facilitate telehealth appointments and file uploads.
Corporate services manager Callum Lamond says the extent of the telecommunications problem was revealed during the COVID pandemic.
"We had hundreds of people who got sick but didn't have phone or internet, so couldn't register for help," he said.
"Some of the houses had 10 or 15 people, but only one mobile phone, so they'd have to send one person out to try get reception to phone us.
"We then had to register everyone online, with all the names and details, so they could receive food packages and other COVID support.
"It was insanely busy and a really difficult time."
Communications Minister Michelle Rowland says the government is aware of the challenges in improving internet services in regional Australia.
"Bridging the digital divide – particularly amongst First Nations communities – is an issue of personal conviction," she said in a statement.
Each year dozens of mobile phone towers are installed at remote campsites and Aboriginal communities under the Mobile Black Spot Program, and an NBN funding boost is connecting more than 600,000 regional properties.
Those working in regional telecommunications say the biggest challenge now is not a lack of internet services, but an overwhelming array of options that are poorly communicated.
The Regional Tech Hub is funded to help people navigate the growing number of technology options via one-on-one phone consults.
Jen Medway runs the program from her family's sheep farm in the ACT, and knows first-hand the high stakes.
"In our local area we've unfortunately had seven deaths on the farms [in recent years], which is absolutely horrific," she said.
"In four of those situations, people had to leave the scene to get help because there was no mobile reception, so it's quite confronting being in regional Australia."
Each week her team receives between 50 and 100 requests for help from regional residents trying to get online.
"There is a lot of frustration out there, but there are almost always technology solutions that can overcome the challenges," she says
"The main thing people are trying to overcome is misinformation, because it is a commercial environment and they're hearing different things from different providers, sometimes giving conflicting advice.
"So that's why we're here, to be independent and provide good information, because it is a complex space."
The team is currently expanding to be able to assist people in more parts of the country.
Find local news from your region here
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
This service may include material from Agence France-Presse (AFP), APTN, Reuters, AAP, CNN and the BBC World Service which is copyright and cannot be reproduced.
AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *