Conquering the digital divide is key to creating a socially inclusive society where people have equal access to technology and understand the full range of benefits that the online world can offer. We hear about the social side of the internet with communication tools like Facebook, Twitter and Skype connecting us locally and globally, but with more essential services, resources and opportunities moving online, it is becoming increasingly urgent to ensure that technology is available, accessible and affordable for all. Universal access to technology is fundamental to avoiding the entrenchment of disadvantage of those not digitally included.
Recently, Finance Minister Penny Wong, announced half a billion dollars in cuts to public service spending on what she labelled as “unnecessary spending”. Savings will include $30 million a year in air travel, $6 million by publishing more reports online rather than in hardcopy formats and $2 million by advertising employment opportunities through online job boards rather than in newspapers. While one of the benefits of moving to online platforms may be cost savings, the impact on those without access to technology or those with low digital literacy levels may result in further disadvantage and exclusion.
As reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the Household Use of Information Technology 2010-2011 study, home internet access is more common in households with higher incomes. The proportion of households connected to the internet in the lowest income quintile is 55%, compared to 95% in the highest income quintile. Australia’s lowest income earners can be up to eight times less likely to have the internet at home than high income households. Home internet access also remains lower in remote areas (70%) compared with major cities(81%), as reported in the Social Inclusion in Australia 2012 study. With such a significant difference in home internet connectivity between rich, poor, remote and urban, the concern for those already disadvantaged is that they will be left even further behind without the skills or tools to access the resources that most of us take for granted.
The rollout of the National Broadband Network offers the potential to ensure greater access to online services for all Australians regardless of where they live, but the bigger picture of digital inclusion is more than just internet connectivity and owning a computer. It also encompasses basic internet skills, web accessibility issues, promoting safe and secure internet use, training people and organisations to utilise the internet for communication, business, employment and social purposes, as well as affordably connecting people to the information, tools and resources that matter most to them. The so called digital divide should not be characterised simplistically as those that have an internet connection versus those that don’t. It is far more complex.
Infoxchange aims to create a more digitally inclusive society through a range of products and services – from computer refurbishment through to software testing services, online community directories, community training and grassroots journalism and ICT services. At the heart of Infoxchange’s work is technology for social justice, and through our digital inclusion initiatives we have helped disadvantaged and socially isolated people to engage with technology and participate more fully in the online world.
Utilising digital technology tools is becoming increasingly commonplace for government departments and businesses. While the benefits of the online world offer many opportunities for organisations and those digitally engaged, the organisations, governments and policy makers that shape our day-to-day lives need to ensure that digital inclusion is high-up on the priority list if we are to create a truly socially inclusive society.
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