2020 has demonstrated the essential nature of communications in the lives of modern Australians. From the devastation of the summer bushfires at the beginning of the year to the sudden and widespread shift to remote working and learning during the COVID-19 crisis, the need for accessible and affordable phone and internet services has never been more pressing for consumers, small businesses, and the nation.
When schools and workplaces closed around the country in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, many Australians were forced to rapidly adapt to online learning and telework. While this digital shift was welcomed by a large number of Australians who no longer had to commute into the office each day, this new way of working had serious impacts for Australians who are not digitally connected.
Families that did not have a home broadband service or did not have enough laptops or computers for each of their children, were often excluded from online learning. At the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), we have heard heart-breaking stories about the impact that being digitally excluded during the COVID-19 crisis has had on families from not-for-profit and consumer groups that work with low-income and vulnerable communities. Digital exclusion meant that children often missed out on opportunities to engage with school teachers who were teaching and interacting with students over online video chat programs such as Zoom.
For many within these groups, cost remains a serious barrier to connectivity. Home broadband services are simply unaffordable for many low-income consumers who may be forced to rely on data from their mobile phone to get online. While mobile data can be useful, for many families this will be a more costly option that will not allow multiple family members to get online at the same time or use data-hungry applications like video conferencing.
ACCAN would like to see the introduction of a concessional home broadband product for households on income support so that no Australian is left offline, simply because they can’t afford to be online.
While access and affordability are key issues when it comes to digital inclusion, people also need the ability and confidence to use online technologies.
According to the Department of Health, from 13 March to 31 August 2020, there were approximately 28 million COVID-19 telehealth services provided to 10.15 million patients by 76,400 providers. Of the telehealth services provided by GPs, nearly 97% of coronavirus-specific telehealth services were provided via telephone and only 3% via video conference. This huge disparity in technology type use raises questions about the confidence for health care providers and consumers to make use of digital technology such as video calls, rather than simply using a traditional telephone. Telehealth has the potential to change the lives of many Australians who can’t access a doctor or allied health professional, however, without utilising the full potential of video in health care, this potential may remain unrealised.
Organisations across Australia, such as Good Things Foundation Australia and those in the Be Connected Network, are playing a vital role in educating Australians about the importance of digital literacy and giving them the confidence to explore the possibilities that the online world can provide. This Get Online Week, we're encouraging consumers to think about how they could benefit from being online and whether it is for healthcare, education, work, accessing government services, or for leisure – and to find an event that can help them gain the skills and confidence to get connected. For those that are already online, Get Online Week is also a great opportunity to think about family and friends who may be digitally disconnected, and what you can do to help them get online.
Melyssa Troy, Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN)
Melyssa Troy is the Media and Communications Manager at the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN). She has a passion for exploring the opportunities that communications services can unlock and the benefits that digital inclusion can bring to everyday Australians.