With the debate about the National Broadband Network well underway, some of the dismissals of why a population would need higher broadband speeds (or as Kevin Rudd so quaintly called it at the Tasmanian Community Cabinet meeting, “Bandspeed”) – often bounce around somewhere between the ridiculous and the incredulous. It’s not only the economic and social value of bringing higher speeds to market at a decent price point that gets the sceptical treatment by those essentially not across the policy brief, but also scepticism aimed at the rhetoric the government has been deploying over the NBN that it is has the importance and consequences of a key essential service akin to roads, power and water, and should be treated as thus.

Of particular interest to this point is the idea that I’ve heard floated around on broadband subsidies for low income households being a possibility further down the track, and how that would fit into the wider policy mix that seems to be falling under the broad banner of the Education Revolution.

Yesterday the ABS released an interesting set of data on sporting, cultural and technological activity undertaken by 5 to 14 year olds over the past 12 months, broken down into a number of demographic cross-tabs.

Within this ABS release is some pretty interesting data on internet use by kids that’s worth looking at and keeping in one’s thought orbit when it comes to some of the issues surrounding the NBN.

First up, the basics – the proportion of 5-14 year olds that accessed the internet in the last 12 months, and broken down by urban geography.

Figures 1 & 2.

ageaccess geographyaccess

The big jump in net access for kids comes between the ages of 9 and 11. Also interesting is that total net access for the 5-14 year cohort starts falling off the further away you get from a capital city.

On the question of where it is that kids access the internet from, the results show some interesting trends across age.

Figure 3

accesslocation

While home based access grows slightly as kids get older, it is primarily the jump in access at school and “Other Places” in the 9-11 year cohort which appears to be one of the reasons for the jump in overall net access for that age group.

Also worth noting is how these overall access changes align with the change in the number of hours the internet gets used each week.

Figure 4

accesstime

They’re the broad basic stats, but where it gets particularly interesting – especially in terms of the NBN debate – is where the ABS broke some of these stats down further using family type and parent’s employment as cross-tabs.

Figure 5

accessfamemp

As generic household employment reduces, so does children’s internet access, with smaller numbers of kids accessing the internet in the past 12 months in those households of either family type where parents were not employed. Some of this is likely to be caused by the affordability of net access at the home, but there’s also a likely to be a big suite of other socio-economic issues involved as well – and it would probably be impossible to pull one apart from the other.

But the prism that this data is worth looking through comes in the next chart – internet use among 5-14 year olds by activity type:

Figure 6 (click to expand)

netactivitytype

In the past 12 months, a higher proportion of children accessed the internet for educational purposes than any other, by a significantly large margin – something those banging on about the internet being for porn and music piracy might like to sit on and spin for a while.

When we look at the big jump that occurs in total net access in the 9-11 year age cohort, and how that corresponds to the big jump in access at school – we also see the same jump in using the net for educational activities among that cohort.

Figure 7

education

Net use for educational activities, which are most likely driven by use at school, is becoming ubiquitous – by the age of 11 – which is worth thinking about in terms of the likely counter factual of the NBN. If that isn’t built, high speed broadband will still exist in Australia – but it will be more expensive per Mbit and where higher speeds will be limited to a much smaller geographical area.

I wonder what impact if any would be had on ultimate educational outcomes if schools had access to next generation internet applications based only on their geography and capacity to pay for high speeds rather than a more universal availability that would occur with the NBN?

How important is high speed access at home likely to be in terms of education outcomes? Taking into account what we already know via the data contained in Figure 5 – could we use employment as a proxy for income, and if so, is there a case for some form of government subsidisation for home access for low income families?

If there is, I’d be interested in your thoughts on whether or how the benefits accrued would be larger than the costs?

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