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Blog | The Digital Divide

The Digital Divide

8/3/2016

The digital divide is an issue which has been raised, so in this blog post we're going to give an overview of what it is - and what it might mean for older South Australians (and all those on the wrong side of the divide).

What is it?

Internet access - and the access to all the information, tools and opportunities accorded by internet access - is increasingly being seen as a human right. The digital divide is a term describing a significant social issue - the gap between those who have ready access to, and the skills to use, modern information and communications technology, particularly the internet, and those who don't.

Possible reasons for the divide:

There are many reasons for restricted access including:

  • Geographical (Infrastructure)
    As with many types of infrastructure, there's a disparity between the quality and availability of rural and urban internet access. Those who live in remote areas typically have access to less or poorer IT infrastructure. Mobile broadband can help to alleviate this issue but is rarely as fast or reliable as broadband through a cable; and it isn't as cost effective which leads us to...
  • Economic
    Low income is one of the key contributors to digital inequality. The quality of internet access - or indeed having internet access at all - corresponds to the ability to pay for a connection, the sort of connection and the data allowance on that connection. Not to mention being able to access the equipment, the computer, phone or tablet, on which to access that connection.
  • Digital Literacy
    The skills needed to use the internet and IT equipment are learned skills; those who have ready access to digital technology have more opportunities not only to learn the necessary skills to get the most out of it but also, crucially, to keep up with the ongoing changes as this technology continues to evolve. Those who start off on the wrong side of the divide are already at a disadvantage and need help to bridge the gap irrespective of the other issues in play.
  • Rapid Rate of Change
    Digital technology changes and evolves at an extremely fast speed - even those who use it every day can find the changes confusing - those who start off behind (as above) are at a disadvantage; they may have difficulties catching up, or worse, fall even further behind. The Australian Human Rights Commission specifically considered the right to internet access of older people in its submission to the Joint Select Committee Inquiry into Cybersafety for Senior Australians and submitted that ‘due to the speed with which the information technology revolution has occurred, many older people in Australia had found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide'.

Impact of being on the wrong side of the divide:

As a result of not having ready access to modern digital communication tools and reliable internet access people may experience disadvantages or miss out on opportunities:

  • Essential services and day to day activities
    Access to government services such as Centrelink and Medicare is increasingly done via secure websites; it's easier and more efficient to pay bills online - and many companies prefer bills to be paid this way; notifications, invitations and alerts are frequently sent by email or on websites (some notifications may only be sent this way so those not using email or websites regularly may miss out entirely).
  • Information
    Organisations, including the government are producing far less information in hard copy while offering more and more information online. This means that there's a great deal of information available instantaneously - for those who can access it
  • Social & Entertainment
    The world has never been smaller; via the internet people can keep in touch through email, social networks, video calls, blogs - and more. There are numerous groups and websites relating to specific hobbies - it's a great way to find information, supplies and meet like-minded people. This could be an important tool for opening up social opportunities and alleviating social isolation.
  • Time, Convenience and Ease of Access
    Some key impacts of being on the wrong side of the divide are that it costs more in time and convenience to resolve an issue over the phone or in person; there are fewer people to take calls because it's easier for businesses to offer services on-line - which means that the queues are longer! Also, for in person service you may have to travel further because the number of service centres has reduced due to more services being online.

Bridging the gap

As more and more services and information are offered online the proportion of people unable to access digital technology is dropping - but the impact of not having access is correspondingly higher. While this is a major societal issue which will only be resolved with time, infrastructure, education and proper policies, there are a few options available to help bridge the gap.

  • Internet/Computer Access
    Local libraries offer free access to the internet - both via their own computers or through wi-fi if you have your own device (laptop, tablet or smartphone). Most towns and cities also have internet cafes where you can use their computers and internet for a fee - and have a coffee into the bargain.
  • Education
    There are various places to learn more about using the internet, computers, tablets and smartphones. Most libraries offer computer and internet classes - contact your local library for more information. Seniors Information Service offers classes and one on one support. For peer support, try the Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association, ASCCA supports seniors' clubs and individuals to get the most out of technology.

Is this an issue which affects you or someone you know? We'd love to hear your views - tell us what you think at cotasa@cotasa.org.au