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.

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