A decade of change in telecommunications

Sharene Jackson, Head of Digital and Social Inclusion, looks forward to the next 10 years of change in our digital world.

By cassandrastrakosch · 27/09/2019

The last decade has seen unprecedented changes in telecommunications that have revolutionised our lives. But we are about to enter a period of even greater change – the fourth industrial revolution where disruptive technologies such as the Internet of Things, robotics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence will even further change the way we connect and communicate, live and work.

The power of telecommunications is in connecting humans and consumers to be in the driving seat of change to ensure that all communities benefit from this brave new digital world. For the past 10 years, ACCAN has been the leading consumer voice in Australia, working with industry and consumers to bring about change. Key players in industry and consumers came together at the recent ACCAN conference to celebrate ACCAN’s success in leading consumer advocacy in Australia’s telecommunications industry in the past decade, and to identify the trends and challenges for the next 10 years.

ACCAN is to be applauded for its role in consumer advocacy in this industry. Keynote speaker, journalist and consumer advocate, Helen Wellings, reinforced how critical it is for strong, influential consumer voices to be heard in our rapidly changing world, emulating the spirit of Ralph Nader who forged the consumer protection movement in the 1960s and 70s – a time when companies did things ‘to people’ rather than listening to them.

The need for consumer advocacy remains critical as we grapple with rapid changes to technology and telecommunications, and especially if we are to bridge the digital divide that currently exists in Australia. The Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2019 shows that, while digital inclusion has risen overall in the last 12 months with improvements in all three dimensions of access, affordability and digital ability, many in our community continue to record low digital inclusion scores.

This includes Australians with low levels of income, education and employment, mobile-only users, people aged over 65, those with disabilities, Indigenous people and those from multicultural backgrounds. Access has improved steadily over the last 12 months, with rural Australia leading the way in NBN take up. However, it remains a challenge for many in rural and remote Australia. Affordability is also a key barrier to inclusion for many in our community and has improved only marginally since 2014. Building digital skills and confidence in individuals continues to be important in enhancing digital inclusion and helping build an appreciation of the value of being online.

Speakers echoed these themes throughout the conference and drew attention to the continuing need to address real barriers to online participation and enable all communities to make use of digital technologies to manage their health and wellbeing, access education and services, organise their finances and connect with friends, family and the world beyond.

Affordability, particularly of fast NBN plans, is still a significant barrier to digital inclusion. The key providers of NBN were challenged about their pricing model by providers who serve those who can only afford minimal payments: renters, low-income families, the homeless, people with disabilities or unemployed, new arrivals in Australia, Indigenous people, the elderly. A call was made for greater innovation around payment models and plans to support those who cannot afford current costs.

Small providers are critical in providing needed services for people who are not only on low incomes but are not confident in the digital world and appreciate the ‘corner store approach’ they offer with their understanding and support of their customers’ needs. Their business models are being challenged by current NBN pricing.

Access still remains a barrier to digital inclusion for many people in rural and remote Australia. Speakers from the National Farmers’ Federation, Country Women’s Association, Isolated Children’s Parents Association and Indigenous communities told stories from the bush about isolation, lack of consistency of services, children not able to connect with online education, innovation and business growth in the farming industry being hampered by sub-optimal services.

Results from a recent project funded under the ACCAN Grants Program identified the need to deliver targeted digital ability programs in rural Far North West Queensland, one of the country’s least included geographical regions. To be successful, programs need to be designed to meet the specific needs of farmers and be delivered in local places, by local people, on local topics. And alternative modes of digital connectivity that are reliable and cost-effective in rural and remote areas need to be embraced.

A report on a recent focus day held in Alice Springs highlighted to the conference audience issues requiring future action to improve digital inclusion for indigenous people, a key step to Closing the Gap on inequity. Remote Indigenous people and communities remain the most digitally excluded group in Australia, and the call to action identified six priority areas:

  1. Data collection to measure access, availability, affordability and digital literacy.
  2. Improved availability through the prioritised roll-out of broadband and mobile coverage to communities with limited access.
  3. Public internet access through community-wide WiFi and community access computers.
  4. Affordable access including unmetered access to all key online services and affordable pre-paid mobile options.
  5. Digital literacy through culturally and language appropriate skills programs in remote communities, locally tailored to needs.
  6. Digital Mentors program to provide local jobs and a peer-supported learning model.

For multicultural groups, the challenge was thrown open to address not only issues of accessibility, affordability and capability, but to address the dearth of digital content that genuinely engages speakers of other languages with local issues, connecting them with their current communities, not just replaying news from their home countries.

Issues related to scamming, data collection and access to personal data were also high on the conference agenda. Scamming is insidious; in 2018, Australians lost nearly half a billion dollars to scammers. All citizens need to be informed and empowered to not only take advantage of the new digital tools but to be protected against scamming and inappropriate manipulation of data.

Data collection is inescapable and, despite the size and scale of its environment, consumers are in the dark about what data is being collected and what it is being used for. A presentation from The Consumer Policy Research Centre highlighted that, to capture the benefits of big data we need to be honest and transparent about the risks. Accountability, including notification of automated decision making, explainability and minimum protection standards, with safety standards for connected devices, are non-negotiable aspects of policy to safeguard consumers’ rights. Consumers have the right to be free of unfair practices and data manipulation and to understand and control their data, including having the ability to delete data, and to expressly provide consent that is specific to purpose, easy to understand, easily accessible and withdrawn, and freely given.

The theme of protecting consumers’ rights to personal data continued in a presentation on research funded under the ACCAN Grants Program which attempted to ask a simple question: can we access our data? The research team tried to access data from social media platforms, online companies, telecommunications companies and fitness wearables. They found that access processes were convoluted and diverse and there was no clear standard across each product and/or service category. While they could get access to some sort of data, the provision of data was not comprehensive in many cases and the data that was provided came in a variety of formats. The research recommended the introduction of a broad suite of rights that update Australian privacy law for a data-driven economy. The Consumer Data Right is an important part of this reform, but there is a need for a broader suite of reforms equivalent to the General Data Protection Right (GDPR), introduced in the European Union, as foundational reform that provides citizens with a range of rights, including a right to be forgotten and a right to access data.

All speakers at the conference acknowledged that collaboration across all levels of government, industry and the community is critical for the benefits of digital technology to be shared by all Australians. “Good digital citizenship”, “digital inclusion and wellbeing” and “the connected community” are possible with the combined efforts of all those involved. The ACCAN National Conference was a positive showcase of the strength of this collaboration and its successes over the past decade. This stands us in good stead to realise the potential to use communications for good and include those who choose to participate and are not blocked by the limitations of how old they are, where they were born, what abilities they have or don’t have.