Digital connectivity is increasingly seen as an essential service, with access to the internet in many parts of the world now underpinning economic development, social connections, education, the arts, employment and social services.

It is also evident that opportunity is intrinsically linked to access. The ability to find a job or accommodation, to pay bills or stay in touch are all made simpler and quicker thanks to the internet and technology – so long as you can get online.

Our CEO, David Thodey, recently joined a social inclusion panel at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona to explore the theme ‘enabling digital, financial and social inclusion.’ David talked to the Australia context, where we are seeing the digital divide ‘narrowing but deepening.’

The telecommunications sector in Australia has been successful in connecting the vast majority of people but those that are missing out are at greater risk of being permanently left behind and barriers to digital access, be they physical, financial or literacy-based, are likely to reinforce disadvantage.

Through our ‘Everyone Connected’ programs, we are working to bridge the digital divide in Australia. Last year we delivered $194 million worth of benefits to our customers and communities through these programs, designed to foster digital access and inclusion for everyone, regardless of age, income, ability or location.

Digital inclusion is part of the solution to many pressing social and environmental issues, from increasing education participation rates in Indigenous young people, to delivering productivity benefits in the health industry, reducing carbon emissions and providing support for those who need it most.

A recent Telstra supported study of people experiencing homelessness found mobile phones were a critical tool. Around half of respondents listed using their phone to contact emergency services (52 per cent), support services (49 per cent) and medical assistance (48 per cent) as the most important uses of their phones after contacting family and friends.

The take-up and use of mobile devices and social media applications in Australia is remarkable, but there are certain groups still on the wrong side of the divide. Remedying this issue not only requires digital access but the ability to use devices and applications, and this is not easy for all. For example, only 46% of seniors (65 years+) use the internet compared to 97% of young people. In central Australia, Indigenous households are 76 per cent less likely to have internet access than non-Indigenous metropolitan households.

To help address some of these gaps, we run digital literacy programs for seniors, providing them the skills they need to participate in the digital world. We have partnerships with the two largest State Governments, New South Wales and Victoria, to deliver our Tech Savvy Seniors training sessions in libraries and community colleges. We have also reproduced our training material in a number of languages including Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi and Dari.

To help users, particularly seniors and people with disability to find the device that’s right for them, we have also refined our standard product offering with a selection of easier to use mobile devices and detailed information about device accessibility features.

Digital connectivity is also extremely important for maintaining access to support networks in times of crisis. For example, the World Bank estimates that globally nearly 1 billion women, including 1.2 million Australians, are victim to domestic violence. Our new Safe Connections program is helping women impacted by domestic violence to stay safely connected to their friends, family and essential services, with cyber safety information and planning an integral part of the program. We also offer zero rate mobile calls to selected national help-lines, to make it even easier to reach out for help.

Our company purpose is ‘to create a brilliant connected future for everyone’. It is the vision ‘for everyone’ that fuels our commitment to overcoming the digital divide by enabling more people to access, understand and embrace digital technology. There is still much work to be done, but we are committed to staying the course on this important issue.