Insufficient access to reliable and affordable internet amplifies inequalities

The Carlton Housing Estatte with two people walking
The report reveals the considerable digital connectivity challenges for residents from the Carlton Housing Estate. Image: John Tadigiri, Street Studio.

Residents of a public housing estate in Melbourne are missing out on education and employment opportunities, and health and income support because of barriers to the access and use of reliable and affordable internet, a new University of Melbourne report has found.

The report Understanding Digital Inequality: An analysis of unequal connectivity in Carlton Housing Estate, reveals the considerable digital connectivity challenges for residents from the Carlton Housing Estate.

The research team co-designed a pilot study which examined the lived experience of 141 residents after the first COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne in 2020.

According to the report, residents incur high internet costs as they are often required to purchase mobile data or pay for other solutions to plug gaps in connectivity without any guarantee of results.

It was also reported internet companies do not provide sufficient support to set up and troubleshoot solutions and with 60 per cent of respondents living below the poverty line, this exacerbates already disadvantaged circumstances.

Lead author of the report Dr Nicky Dulfer said it has become increasingly important to understand the experiences of communities particularly vulnerable to digital exclusion.

“This report provides an insight into the lived experiences of people in public housing towers, who experience significant digital inequality at a time when internet access is required for most forms of participation in society,” Dr Dulfer said.

“It also provides an example for further research to better understand the factors that lead to digital inequality in intersectional communities. Growing this evidence base will be critical to determining how exactly government and industry can tackle increasing digital inequality in Australia.”

As a result of unreliable internet, participants were often unable to engage in common activities like streaming and conference calling, and were required to use mobile data to interact with critical services like Centrelink and digital translators.

The study also revealed participants were not as digitally connected during the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns as the critical services they depended on assumed.

Online home-schooling and remote working demanded 1-to-1 device-to-person ration and many low-income families needed to buy or request assistance to meet this demand.

The report recommends further research should focus on how people access the internet, not just if they can access the internet or not and at what cost, and for the development of not-for-profit alternatives that can be rolled out where the need is greatest like public housing estates.

In addition, the research team calls on telcos and governments to work together to set minimum quality standards and create products which offer low-cost options that do not force people to sacrifice quality or reliability.

The pilot study was funded by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), Melbourne Social Equity Institute and Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

“ACCAN is really proud to support this groundbreaking report and we congratulate the university for bringing such an important issue to the surface. Digital inequality is an area that we have been concerned about for a long time and it’s important that all Australians have equal access to reliable and affordable internet no matter what they can afford,” ACCAN CEO Andrew Williams said.

The University of Melbourne's Social Equity Institute Director Professor Jo Barraket said this research has emerged at a particularly important time.

“The pandemic has led to huge digital uplift across all kinds of services. Through direct engagement with one community's experience, this research shines a light on both the social inequities generated by an increasingly digital world, and possible ways to respond,” Professor Barraket said.

Access the full report and summary reports in several different languages on the Melbourne Social Equity Institute website.