Covid lockdowns have driven a steady increase in the use of digital services and devices over the last year. However, regional and older Australians’ access still lags considerably behind the most wired-in metropolitan communities, with the pandemic appearing to exacerbate the digital divide, the latest digital inclusion report has found.
The 2021 Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) has revealed a 5 per cent year-on-year increase in national digital inclusion scores – reaching a high of 71.1 this year, up from 67.5 in 2020.
However, the regional ADII score still lags significantly behind metro areas, reaching 67.4 this year – a 5.5 points difference from metropolitan Australia, which had an average index score of 72.9.
While the survey acknowledged that the rapid shift to online services since early 2020, triggered by nation-wide Covid lockdowns, has “[changed] the way many Australians use the internet”, the report said, these changes appear to have mostly impacted those “already active online”.
The ADII found an 11-point gap in time spent online between regional and metropolitan Australians, from 61 per cent for those in the regions to 72 per cent in metro areas.
“Population groups that typically register lower digital inclusion scores – such as older Australians, and those living in regional areas – were much less likely to report an impact on their access to and use of the internet than those with higher digital inclusion scores. This can partially be explained by the pandemic’s dynamics.”
“While undoubtedly impacted by Covid-19 these population groups were comparatively less implicated in lockdown restrictions and the ‘pivot’ to online work, schooling, and education.”
The ADII authors found that while Covid has been a key driver of digital transformation, “this has not necessarily been a strong driver of digital inclusion”.
Around 40 per cent of those deemed ‘highly included’ saw improved levels of digital skills to help with
work, study, or home life during Covid. Only 14 per cent of those deemed ‘highly excluded’ saw a similar digital skills jump.
“Instead, it appears that in some respects Covid-19 may have reinforced Australia’s uneven distribution of digital participation, by increasing online activity among people who were already more likely to be online, with the most pronounced effect being on those with children, and in metropolitan areas.”
Highly urbanised and educated populations, unsurprisingly, also correlated with high digital inclusion scores, with the Australian Capital Territory (with the vast majority of its population based in Canberra) taking away the highest state or territory ADII ranking in the country, at 77 points – 5.9 points higher than the 2021 national score, and a 5-point jump on its 2020 score.
Tasmania this year ranked as the least digitally included state, with a score of just 66 – though this was still a 3-point improvement on last year’s score.
In a statement, the Tasmanian Government noted while the “upward trend is pleasing… there is still much more work to be done”.
The Government has announced the appointment of four Digital Ambassadors “to promote the range of free digital assistance available around the State, as well as provide small group training sessions directly to our communities”.
While the number of Australians deemed “highly excluded” from the digital world (that is, ranking below an ADII Index score of 45) still accounts for 11 per cent of the population, these rates have nevertheless dropped markedly over the last year.
In 2020, 17 per cent of the Australian population was considered “highly excluded”, meaning at least 1.5 million Australians have stepped out of this category over the last year.
These highly excluded Australians are often from among the most vulnerable communities, with a significant number: unlikely to have completed their secondary education (38 per cent); falling in the lowest income quintile (31 per cent); living in a single person household (26 per cent); living with a disability (23 per cent); currently unemployed (21 per cent) or not in the labour force (22 per cent).
The percentage of excluded Australians (defined as recording an Index score of above 45 and below 61), however, has remained unchanged since last year’s survey, representing 17 per cent of the national population.
“Taken together, the number of highly excluded and excluded Australians is substantial, equalling 28 per cent of the national population in 2021,” the report noted.
Affordability of digital devices and services, recognised as “central to closing the digital divide”, remains a lingering concern, with the report authors demanding better coordination and more targeted and sustained programs by government to address this fault line.
Based on the ADII’s affordability measure, for Australians in the lowest income quintile, two out of three would have to pay more than 10 per cent of their household income to gain a quality, reliable connectivity – a significant financial imposition for many households.
“At the level of government programs, digital skills and abilities initiatives to date have not been coordinated. Some useful steps have been taken to alleviate the affordability problem, but to date these have been on a temporary or provisional basis.
“Many low-income Australian households have spent long periods in lockdown without a low cost, high quality, fixed broadband product in the marketplace. Access to affordable devices that are appropriate for online work and education has also emerged as a major challenge.”
Launched in 2015, the Australian Digital Inclusion Index, a collaborative project between Telstra, the ARC Centre, and Swinburn University, uses data from the Australian Internet Usage Survey to measure digital inclusion across three dimensions: access, affordability and digital ability.
“Our premise is that everyone should have the opportunity to benefit from digital technologies: to manage their health, access education and services, participate in cultural activities, organise their finances, follow news and media, and connect with family, friends, and the wider world.”
Further findings from the ADII 2021 survey can be accessed here.