hand writing the words internet access on white background

One in four of the poorest households in Western Australia do not have access to the internet compared to almost all of the highest income households, according to the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre’s latest report.

The BCEC report, "Falling Through the Net: The Digital Divide in Western Australia", examines the magnitude and key drivers of the digital divide in Western Australia, and highlights potential solutions to bridge the divide for the most disadvantaged groups.

Report author and BCEC Director Professor Alan Duncan said while a higher share of the population is now accessing the internet, the impact on those who are not online is deepening.

“Access to the internet has increased in Australia over the past ten years, with 90 per cent of households now connected. However, as more essential services including health care, banking and government services move online, those that are not connected face greater risk of falling on the wrong side of the digital divide,” Professor Duncan said.

Professor Duncan said those who cannot afford to keep pace with new communications technologies, or who face challenges in access by virtue of location or ability, are at risk of being excluded from the opportunities afforded by the new digital future.

“Many Australians, including the elderly and single parents, face challenges in accessing digital services. Only 61 per cent of older age Australians currently access the internet, which may mean reduced access to government services and information,” Professor Duncan said.

“Digital infrastructure and access is now a critical part of our economic and social infrastructure, and the social connections that the internet can offer older Australians cannot be ignored.”

The divide is also seen between populations in major cities and those who live in rural and remote areas of Australia, primarily due to a lack of sufficient infrastructure.

“Across very remote parts of Australia, only 69 per cent of households have access to the internet, although WA is punching above its weight on this front, with 83 per cent of very remote households connected,” Professor Duncan said.

Report co-author Dr Daniel Kiely, Senior Research Fellow at BCEC, said the report also highlights the divide between high and low income earners.

“Only 74 per cent of the lowest income earners in Western Australia access the internet, compared to 99 per cent of the highest income earners,” Dr Kiely said.

“Mobile and internet access comes at a considerable financial cost for some of our poorest households. Using measures similar to how housing stress is calculated, we found that 10.5 per cent of single parents and 12.2 per cent of single women experience some form of digital stress.

“With digital connectivity becoming more of a necessity than ever for Australian households, we can’t discount that this imposes a significant financial burden on some of our poorest households.”

The BCEC Small Business Survey highlights that internet quality and coverage does vary significantly between Western Australia’s regions.

“The report found 26 per cent of small businesses in the South West and Pilbara regions rated the quality of their internet infrastructure as low, compared with 25 per cent in the Wheatbelt and only 11 per cent in Perth,” Dr Kiely said.

“Poor internet access presents a particular challenge for businesses in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector, with 27 per cent rating the quality of both mobile and internet services as low.

“In the Gascoyne, 30.8 per cent of small businesses rated the quality of broadband as low, while another 23.1 per cent rated the quality as very high, suggesting a sharp divide between the broadband services available to businesses within the same region.”

Small and micro businesses are more reliant on internet sales than larger firms, with 30 per cent earning more than 50 per cent of their revenue online, compared to about 25 per cent for larger companies.

Dr Kiely said that while online trade was becoming a larger part of business practice, data and internet security didn’t appear to be a priority for smaller businesses.

“Three in four small business owners consider cyber security to be of little or no relevance to their businesses, which may leave them open to cyber security breaches and data theft,” Dr Kiely said.

Professor Duncan highlighted the policy recommendations outlined in the report, including the need for a state-wide digital strategy.

“The information highway is every bit as important as the freeways that connect us. Digital infrastructure should feature as a critical element of governments’ overall infrastructure plans, particularly across the regions,” Professor Duncan said.

“There is a growing need for training and support programs to build digital literacy across all sections of society, and to maintain alternative support arrangements to ensure government services remain accessible to all, especially those most at risk of falling through the digital net.

“Coordinated schemes are needed that offer training to small business owners in the benefits afforded them by digital technologies – as well as the risks they face in the new digital world.

“An integrated ‘whole of State’ digital strategy, coordinated across all levels of government and supported by representation from the education, industry and community sectors, is essential if we are to capitalise on the opportunities afforded by the new digital future.”

View key findings and download report

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