Although the digital economy generates extraordinary social, cultural and economic benefits for Australians, we know that these benefits are not equally shared. Over two and a half million Australians are not online, and many more are not able to take full advantage of online services.

As the internet has become the default medium for everyday exchanges, information-sharing, and access to essential services, the disadvantages of being offline have grown. Being connected is now a necessity, not a luxury.

The 2018 Australian Digital Inclusion Index, released today, provides the most complete picture yet of the nature and extent of digital inclusion in Australia. The Index, drawing from five years of nationwide survey data, measures three critical dimensions of digital inclusion: access, affordability, and digital ability. As a source of evidence and a guide for action, the Index shows us where digital inclusion is improving and where more needs to be done.

The 2018 Australian Digital Inclusion Index data shows digital inclusion is improving in Australia, with gains made across all three dimensions in the past year. That is good news.

The biggest improvement over the past 12 months has been recorded in the Accessibility measure. This dimension captures if, how, and where people access the internet and the data allowances they have at their disposal. The 2018 Index results show the nbn is beginning to have a range of positive impacts on this measure.

The uptake of nbn broadband services has risen substantially since 2017, particularly in locations such as Tasmania where the rollout is well-progressed. The nbn improves digital inclusion in several ways including by enhancing access for those households switching because the nbn is generally a better access technology than previous options— notwithstanding the policy arguments over whether it is optimal.

The Index data also shows two other positive effects of the nbn rollout: first, the rollout appears to be encouraging households previously without fixed internet to connect; and second, households with nbn connections have higher average data allowances.

Although access gains are important, connectivity does not equal digital inclusion. An important consideration is whether these access gains will translate into more productive and rewarding online activity. We need to make sure Australians are able to make the most of their improved access. So supporting people in developing confidence and capabilities online is critical. The digital ability dimension of the Index measures people’s attitudes to technology and capacity to engage in online tasks. The 2018 results show that, despite some progress, online skills remain low.

The expansion in access has also had affordability repercussions. The affordability dimension of the Index captures how much data we are getting for our dollar, and the proportion of our income we spend on internet services.

Over the past few years, Australians have benefitted from better value for money internet services as the cost of data has fallen. However, because people are doing more online and purchasing larger data allowances, they are spending a larger proportion of their household income on internet access.

For most middle income and better-off Australians, this is unlikely to be a problem. But for lower income households, especially those on fixed incomes, affordability is an important issue and one that clearly diminishes their level of digital inclusion.

Income is just one factor that influences digital inclusion. Indeed, the 2018 Index results show that geography, age, education, and employment also continue to define access to and uses of online resources. In addition to low income earners, those not in the labour force, those who did not complete secondary school and people aged over 65 recorded low digital inclusion index scores in 2018 – and the bad news is that some of these groups are falling further behind.

The value of the Index lies in the assistance it can provide in targeting and shaping future policy and action. In addition to reporting on the latest overall results, the 2018 Australian Digital Inclusion Index Report takes a special look at digital inclusion for three groups: single parents, residents of the remote Indigenous community of Ali Curung, and the deaf and hard of hearing community. These case studies illustrate the complex ways in which digital inequality is experienced, and how it might be addressed.

You can download the 2018 Australia Digital Inclusion Index here.