New ABS figures show internet penetration rates are still closely aligned with income.Access to the internet in Australia continues to be a case of the haves and have-nots – although the gap is narrowing, according to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
The new report released on Tuesday shows 97 per cent of those earning $120,000 or more are internet users, compared with 77 per cent of those earning less than $40,000 a year.
The findings, based on figures for the 2012-2013 financial year, have implications for the online provision of government, education and other services.
Of the 7.3 million households with internet access, the majority (93 per cent) had a broadband connection, 4 per cent had a dial-up connection and 3 percent didn’t know.
Although internet penetration among low-income earners has improved – just 59 per cent of people in the lowest income bracket had access in 2010- 2011 – the gap is deepening, according to Scott Ewing, senior research fellow at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research.
He was referring to the internet’s ‘network effect,’ where the value grows as more people join (for example, a social network becomes a must-have when all your friends are using it).
“Five years ago when only half the population was online the disbenefit for being offline wasn’t so great. Now, there’s a real penalty for people who don’t have access,” Ewing said. “We’re reaching a point where the internet is becoming integrated in everyday life, so those people who aren’t able to access it don’t even know what they’re missing out on.”
Swinburne’s own research matches the ABS figures, he said, and added that many disconnected users would be seniors whose only income was government benefits.
A report from Anglicare Victoria and the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) last year found that 50 per cent of those on low incomes couldn’t afford internet access.
The ABS also reported that three-quarters of people educated to year 12 used the internet, compared with 96 per cent of those with a bachelor degree or above.
The digital disparity emphasises the need to explore the financial and social cost of accessing quality internet services, according to Tanya Notley, a lecturer at the University of Western Sydney who has previously researched poor broadband penetration in remote indigenous communities.
“We need to understand the impact of internet access and quality disparities on social inclusion, including employment levels and other opportunities to participate in society,” Ms Notley said. “I hope NBN discussions will move into this area to ensure a meaningful debate and a more equitable digital inclusion.”
The ABS report also showed a huge growth in the use of mobile broadband. In 2012-2013, 40 per cent of the 6.8 million households with broadband access used a mobile dongle on a laptop or desktop computer, another 33 per cent used their smartphones, compared with just 16 per cent using mobile connections in 2010-2011. The most common type of broadband connection was via a copper line (DSL) at 54 per cent.
It also found three quarters (76 per cent) of Australia’s 15.4 million internet users made a purchase or ordered goods online in the period.