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The digital divide: a profound public health issue that needs work

More than three million Australians are at risk of being left on the wrong side of the digital divide, with profound consequences for public health and economic wellbeing, according to Don Perlgut, CEO of the Rural Health Education Foundation.

The Government has announced some initiatives that aim to help break down the divide but Perlgut writes below that concerted action from multiple sectors will be needed to ensure all Australians benefit from the digital revolution.

How can we ensure online participation for all?

Don Perlgut writes:

Now that the 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.  Except that we will soon start hearing a phrase that was in common usage some ten years ago: the digital divide.

This concept has slipped from the public radar in recent years under the onslaught of smart phones, i-Pads, 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”.

The recent Sydney launch (at the annual CeBIT technology conference) by Senator Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, of the new National Digital Economy Strategy is very welcome, and it is particularly good to see the attention now being paid to those in danger of being left behind in the latest online revolution.

The NBN website clearly states the problem:

Thirty-seven per cent of people aged 55-64 did not use the internet in 2008-09, compared with 69 per cent of people aged 65 or more. Similarly, 34 per cent of people earning less than $40,000 a year did not use the internet in 2008-09 and nor did 34 per cent of people living in outer regional and remote areas. People with a profound or severe disability requiring assistance with core activities have significantly lower access to the internet and broadband than other Australians. For example, about 28 per cent of people with a disability requiring assistance with core activities have broadband access in comparison to about 48 per cent of people who do not need assistance with core activities.

In other words, if you are poor, Indigenous, old or disabled and live in outer regional/remote areas of Australia, your chances of being “online ready” are pretty low.

And who are the people who will most need the chronic disease monitoring systems the Government is starting to put in place?   The poor, the elderly, the disabled and the residents of outer regional and remote Australia.

The July 2010 Access Economics tele-health report concluded that “Tele-health offers the potential for significant gains to Australia’s population, especially for people who are elderly or who live in rural or remote communities.”

That’s good news, but a key complication of the NBN is that just because you build it, they may not come – to paraphrase the famous tag-line from the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams. Internet access does and will cost money, and it will take some level of technical expertise and digital literacy to gain and maintain that access.

This issue was brought into sharp relief at CeBIT’s e-Gov conference, with presentations by Martha Lane Fox and Graham Walker of Office of the UK Digital Champion. They presented some interesting facts:  8.7 million adults in the UK never use technology, and people who are “offline” over-estimate the costs of being online by a factor of three.

The “addressable market” (by business) in the UK is estimated to be 80% of the population:  they will find their own way online.  It’s the final 15 to 20% that really need the help.

We have no reason to assume that the situation is different here in Australia, and our vast distances to outer regional and remote locations will only exacerbate the problems.

The Government has clearly recognised this, in Minister Conroy’s announcement of $23.8 million over three years for a “Digital Communities Initiative”, which will establish “‘Digital Hubs’ in each of the 40 communities that will first benefit from the NBN” in order “to improve their digital literacy skills”. A related program provides $10.4 million over four years to continue the “Broadband for Seniors” program.

It’s a great start.  But with more than 22,600,000 Australians, even a conservative estimate of 15% digitally deprived residents means that almost 3.4 million Australians will fall on the other side of that divide.  That’s a lot more than 40 digital hubs can address.

This is not just an information access issue; it is a profound public health, social welfare and economic challenge.

Without full participation in the online world, we are in danger of relegating substantial parts of our population to generations of compounded disadvantage of health, education and employment.

The Government’s current efforts can only be a start.  What we need is concerted action by local and state government, community and business to connect all Australians.

Debates over NBN funding only obscure what will cost tens of billions of dollars down the track if we do not start to plan for these challenges now.

• Don Perlgut is the CEO of the Rural Health Education Foundation, and a PhD candidate in the Department of Media, Music and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.

Comments 9

  1. e8f1d3644263a37c62b7e45c0a6d704d says:

    The Digital Divide is only one of many divides that have seamlessly woven itself into the fabric of society. We don’t fear/critique the opening of more and better quality schools in urban settings even though remote and rural schooling is a major issue. There isnt a “Eduation Divide” discussion as biased as the “Digital Divide” subject.

    If we cant improve remote and rural services sooner, the least the NBN can do is to improve and free up services so they can be available to access the ‘hardly reached’ in complex geographical settings.

  2. Clytie says:

    e8.. You’re right about the urban/regional divide, and the sad thing is that it used to be significantly smaller. In the last decade, services have been gutted in rural and regional areas. My regional area, for example used to have excellent education and health services. Forced closure and merging of successful schools, let alone cuts in staffing and ever-increasing demands, have placed enormous strain on our educational system. Students inevitably miss out. Our local hospitals have been cut to the bone: need have a baby or get emergency treatment? Travel to another town. It took me more than three months to get a GP appointment, and those programs for chronic illness? There’s no staff to run them. Domiciliary Care is overloaded and underfunded, with no coverage for disabled people.

    On the connectivity issue, it is a huge help (in many cases, literally a life-saver) to have access to the Internet when you are isolated by distance, language or disability. As a severely disabled person living in the country, I strongly suggest the government do the same thing as it’s doing with digital TV: target the people who are most likely to need the help, and offer it. The Opposition will spin and splutter, but that’s all they do. Get the help to those who need it.

    A photographer did a study of the avatars people choose online, and placed them next to the real people. One showed a huge space warrior in armour, next to a tiny, wasted nine-year-old quadriplegic. The kid had a huge grin.

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racism
social policy
Summer reading 2020-2021
Tasmanian election 2021
Testing Croakey News category 1
The Croakey Archives
#cripcroakey
#HealthEquity16
#HealthMatters
#IHMayDay (all years)
#IHMayDay 2014
#IHMayDay15
#IHMayday16
#IHMayDay17
#IHMayDay18
#LoveRural 2014
Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
#IPCHIV14
AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
#CPHCEforum
#CRANAplus15
#HSR15
#NRHC15
#OTCC15
Population Health Congress 2015
2016 conferences
#AHHAsim16
#AHMRC16
#ANROWS2016
#ATSISPEP
#AusCanIndigenousWellness
#cphce2016
#CPHCEforum16
#CRANAplus2016
#IAMRA2016
#LowitjaConf2016
#PreventObesity16
#TowardsRecovery
#VMIAC16
#WearablesCEH
#WICC2016
2017 conferences
#17APCC
#ACEM17
#AIDAconf2017
#BTH20
#CATSINaM17
#ClimateHealthStrategy
#IAHAConf17
#IDS17
#LBQWHC17
#LivingOurWay
#OKtoAskAu
#OTCC2017
#ResearchTranslation17
#TheMHS2017