Not everyone has Internet access


Image: (L-R) $29 music player, Smart Phone, , Kindle E-reader (top) old school electronic diary, memory 48KB.

I visited my local library last week for the first time in months and noticed that public internet access (computers, desks and chairs), had been removed. Desks, tables and chairs had also been removed from the reading room, where one could sit for hours browsing newspapers and magazines or working on jigsaw puzzles.

“That’s not very fair on people who don’t have a computer or access to WIFI,” said She Who Believes in Equality.

A survey published in March this year, citing Australian Bureau of Statistics data, showed that 2.5 million Australians are not online. Reasons given by respondents included affordability issues, location (poor signal or no signal), or that they lacked the 21st century skill called ‘digital literacy’.

The Centre for Social Inclusion (CSI) produces the National Digital inclusion Index, based on data from Roy Morgan Research.

Since data was first collected in 2014, Australia’s overall digital inclusion score has risen by 7.9 points, from 54.0 to 61.9. Improvements have been evident across all three categories: Access, Affordability and Digital Ability. CSI notes in its 2019 report that those with the lowest ADII score are in the lowest socio-economic demographic (income under $35,000), with a score of 43.3 points. The Northern Territory is excluded from the research (sample too small), but indigenous Australians living elsewhere scored 55.1.

The digital divide is an obvious social strata marker, with a 30.5 point difference between the lowest income demographic (43.3) and the highest (73.8).

The 2019 survey shows that all segments of the digital access market improved on their 2018 score. Scores are allocated to particular geographic regions and socio-demographic groups, over a six-year period from 2014 to 2019. People aged 65 and over are the least digitally included age group, with a score of 48 (13.9 points below the national average).

I know a few elders who, for one reason or another, refuse to engage with the digital world, clinging on to old analogue TV sets and VCRs, eschewing mobile phones and in some cases, not even having an answering machine. The NBN is relentlessly catching up with this cohort. Moreover, financial institutions are forcing these older customers to abandon time-honoured way of paying bills (by cheque and in person).

As an aside, when I first tried to source the CSI report, I was ironically greeted with the message, “bandwidth exceeded, try later”.

We’re all getting a lot of messages like that with the weight of people using Facebook, Twitter and their affiliates 24/7, not to mention streaming movies, TV series and engaging in bandwidth-using virtual performances and community catch ups.

Last time I wrote about this subject, 90,000 Australians were still using dial-up modems to surf the Internet. That annoying yet welcoming modem squeal is heard no longer, at least not by Telstra customers. Telstra retired its dial-up service In December 2015, citing a sharp drop off in the numbers of people still using dial-up in favour of a variety of connectivity options.

When I last worked for the now mostly digital regional news services, when we went to public meetings in rural areas, we’d take a portable modem. The mid-1980s version was a device you clamped to the handset of a (dial up) phone and then transmitted your news report from the laptop. News organisations spent a fortune equipping field reporters with clunky laptops which weighed at least 10kg and cost thousands. When the technology inevitably did not work, reporters simply called a ‘copy-taker’ at HQ and dictated the story.

Copy-takers are long gone, and the rest of the old school cohort who had not already taken a redundancy package will most likely be swept out the door in the latest media shakeout.

But getting back to the 2.5 million Australians who told survey takers they do not have access to the Internet.

A group of 30 community organisations has called for urgent efforts to help Australians not connected to the internet. The group told the Sydney Morning Herald that the pre-existing problem was heightened during the pandemic, hindering access to government services; for example, children trying to undertake online education and people needing access to telehealth services.

The group asked Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to consider ‘targeted low-cost broadband’ connections for eligible households, a relief package of basic telecommunications equipment and a telephone service for people with low digital literacy.

Of those Australians who do have Internet access, more than four million use mobile only to ‘gain access to the internet’ (note how I refuse to verb a noun). This means they have a mobile phone or mobile broadband device with a data allowance, but no fixed connection. This cohort rated a low ADII score of 43.7, some 18.2 points below the national average (61.9). Mobile data costs substantially more per gigabyte than fixed broadband, which means mobile-only users are unlikely to be binge-watching Narcos, House of Cards or Killing Eve.

Mobile-only use is linked with socio-economic factors, with up to a third of people in low-income households, those with low levels of education and the unemployed more likely to be using mobile-only.

Now here’s what at first sight seems to be an anomaly. You would know the oft-quoted homeless numbers in Australia – around 116,000 at the last Census. However, as the survey found, homeless people find phones essential for survival and safety, job prospects and for moving out of homelessness.

Consumer advocate The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), cited a Sydney University study that found 92% of Australians who identify as homeless (95% in Sydney and Melbourne), own a mobile phone. The homeless favour smart phones (77% of those surveyed had a pre-paid plan for a smart phone). They typically use free WIFI and public access (libraries) to keep costs down.

You might well ask, “How can a homeless person afford a smart phone?”

Well, I bought one last week for $29! It is destined to replace an unreliable IPod as a portable music player. But it also has all of the apps anyone needing a survival tool could ever use. And you can use it to call someone or send a text!

Apps take up most of the memory in this bargain phone. But even so, a minimum $10 a month would make this a handy ‘Where am I sleeping tonight?’ tool.

The annual Deloitte Australia Mobile Use Survey’s key finding is that mobile penetration in Australia has maxed out at 91% (about 20 million users), and accordingly, sales are slowing. The main reason for this is that Australians are holding on to their phones longer (three years on average).

If you are at all interested in how mobile technology is developing, this report (you need to sign up to download it), is illuminating.

For example, did you know that mobile is starting to lose ground to voice-assisted speakers (a 51% increase since 2018), as the preferred user method of ‘gaining access to’ home services and entertainment?

(“OK, Google, play ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen” – but you have to train the thing to recognise your accent…Ed)

As an observation on the recent move by News Ltd to shut down many print titles and move most of the survivors online, mobile remains our preferred device to consume news. Having said that, Australians are less interested in tuning in at all, with only 39% reading the news weekly, compared to 48% last year.

And, as if we did not already know, 27% of Australia’s 17.9 million smart phone owners use their device at least once a week to watch a TV series or movies, up from just 5% in 2015!  I relate to this statistic, as I covertly watch Killing Eve on my smart phone, as She Who Believes in Equality chooses not to watch.

Bandwidth exceeded – try later.

FOMM back pages: Hold the phones 2014


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