The internet has become so commonplace that most Australians barely remember life without it, but for many it is an unaffordable luxury.
And social isolation measures risk making that worse, especially for families with school-aged children.
RMIT media professor Julian Thomas told The New Daily internet affordability is a pervasive problem for the country.
And now that students’ lessons are going digital, being unable to access the internet is leaving less well-off families even further behind.
“This is a really significant issue,” he said.
“Internet and communications costs actually make up a pretty significant proportion of people’s household budgets when they’re on very low incomes.”
Professor Thomas noted that unemployed Australians are much more likely not to have an internet connection at home (72.5 per cent) than those with jobs (95.1 per cent).
With the coronavirus driving up unemployment, the number of homes without internet access could increase, too.
ABS data shows that between 2014 and 2018, the amount of homes without an internet connection hovered at roughly 14 per cent – and Professor Thomas said price played a big part in that.
“While we have over 90 per cent of the Australian population connected, there are big gaps and a very significant set of digital inequalities,” he said.
“We talk about the digital divide narrowing and deepening at the same time – there’s fewer people who are less connected, but the costs of not being connected are getting higher because people are reliant on the internet.”
The monthly cost of a fit-for-purpose broadband connection is around $60 at the moment, Professor Thomas said.
That price would need to fall to $40 or even $30 a month before Australia makes real progress on the affordability problem.
“We need a more comprehensive digital inclusion strategies,” Professor Thomas said.
“We’re making progress, but we’re yet to see the outcome of recent initiatives. I hope we’re making progress, but we haven’t seen the evidence.
“The scary thing is that we could be going backwards rather than forwards now because everything has changed.”
School children need help ‘more than ever’
For school-aged children, the digital divide is particularly worrying according to children’s charity The Smith Family.
The charity’s chief executive Dr Lisa O’Brien told The New Daily without adequate support to get them online, disadvantaged children will fall even further behind their peers.
“Right now, disadvantaged students around the country need support more than ever,” she said.
“Some parents are also unable to help their children with their schoolwork, due to low educational attainment themselves or having English as a second language.
“Parents may also not have the confidence or skills to support their children with technology.”
Almost one-quarter of the children in The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program alone (roughly 12,000 children) don’t have access to a computer with a reliable internet connection at home.
“This means they’re missing out on an essential learning tool during this period of remote learning that most Australians take for granted,” Dr O’Brien said.
We need a co-ordinated systematic response to this crisis.
“Schools are doing their best, but schools in communities experiencing high levels of disadvantage have the least resources to support home learning for the many families who need it.”
Dr O’Brien said “governments, businesses and communities all have a role to play” and will need to collaborate to fix the problem.
“We will keep an open mind as to what’s needed, but whatever it is, it’s needed fast,” she said.