MELINDA JAMES: The Swinburne Institute was commissioned by Telstra to put together Australia’s first digital inclusion index.
It measures things like internet access, affordability, how much downloads you get for what you pay and compares regions across Australia. Now surprisingly, Wollongong fared pretty well even in comparison to Sydney. But the Shoalhaven is certainly lagging behind. I spoke to Labor’s regional spokesperson Stephen Jones.
STEPHEN JONES MP, SHADOW MINISTER: The Swinburne Institute has released the digital inclusion index, first in Australia which includes really important information about how we are going as a country on digital inclusion. Why does it matter? With all the government services and a whole heap of businesses now having online as the default setting, if you don’t have access to broadband, you don’t have access to government services or business and markets throughout the world.
JAMES: So digital inclusion you are essentially talking about who has access to the internet, how fast that internet is and how affordable it is?
JONES: That’s right. The index has three particular things it looks at. First is access and that is basically do you have access to a broadband service, then affordability, how much are you paying overall as a percentage of your household budget but also more importantly, what you are getting for what you are paying. How much are you paying for the packets of data that you are accessing. And the third part of the index looks at your actual digital ability. How the citizens in a particular area are interacting with the internet. And Wollongong, Wollongong does surprisingly well.
JAMES: Yeah, I am just noticing in this table here, does slightly better than even Sydney in terms of internet access, internet technology and internet data allowance. I mean what do you put that down to?
JONES: A couple of things, if you look at areas throughout regional Australia, they are above the pack, they all have a university in them, so I am looking at places like Wollongong, Newcastle, Geelong, Townsville and Gosford. Wollongong far outstrips all those other regional towns or places that we normally compare ourselves to. Surprisingly we also do better than Adelaide, we do better than Hobart, we are neck and neck with Brisbane and as you’ve said in some areas we are ahead of Sydney. Now this really matters for the future because so much of our business and so much of what we are doing is going to be relying on access to the internet.
JAMES: Certainly not good news for people further south though, the south coast of new south wales doesn’t perform particularly well, particularly on internet data allowance, what is that, that’s just a function of what the kind of technology available to them in terms of download speed?
JONES: The further you get away from your capital cities, the poorer the services are. The problem in the Shoalhaven is they didn’t get priority access to the national broadband network. You might recall when Bluescope back in 2012 announced the first line of its major layoffs, Sharon Bird and I got Julia Gillard down to the region. We said we need some game changers for the region in getting priority access to the NBN was one of those issues. That is now delivering. Shoalhaven didn’t have that. The other thing is with lots of villages strung out up and down the highway there, you have lots of mobile phone blackspots as well in the area so you can see some real differences between the regions. This does give a pretty clear indication about what you’ve got to do to improve those regions and improve the economies of those regions. I’d be saying to the Shoalhaven, broadband and access to broadband should be number one in your economic development agenda.
JAMES: It does look as though if we get a broader picture of what is happening while internet access it up around the 85% range, internet technology a bit lower around the seventy or so percent range but the internet data allowance is pretty low across the board.
JONES: That’s right and that’s basically affordability – what you are getting for what you pay.
JAMES: So we are paying too much?
JONES: I think we are. I think we are and what we are getting for what we pay is also another issue. People are paying for certain plans and are not getting what is on the box. People are paying for certain download speeds and certain access plans, but the service provided is not being able to deliver what the market. I think that’s an area that needs more government attention and something I will be looking at as a part of my shadow portfolio.
JAMES: So finally this information that has come out of or has been commissioned by Telstra but done independently by the Swinburne Institute – what does it tell government about what they need to do to I guess improve all those things, access, technology, data, affordability to the internet?
JONES: It is no longer an option; we have to have access to fast, reliable, affordable broadband. I will leave you with one final statistic. Between 2004-2009, it’s estimated that 21% of the growth in GDP from mature economies was directly related to internet technologies and broadband. If we want to see growth in our regions, we’ve got to get access to decent, reliable, affordable broadband.
JAMES: That’s Stephen Jones, Labor’s spokesperson for regional communications.