Connectivity has never been more important. In the face of COVID-19, as doctors, teachers, service providers and more switch to online services, being connected is not a luxury: it is a necessity. But the 2020 Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) report released today shows that a high level of digital inequality persists.

Many Australians continue to miss out on the benefits of being online. As this year’s report highlights, there’s much more work to do to close the digital divide and give Australians equal access to vital services.

The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) is an annual study of digital inclusion in Australia, produced by RMIT University’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre and Swinburne University’s Centre for Social Impact in partnership with Telstra. The research explores Digital Inclusion in terms of three dimensions – Access, Affordability and Digital Ability. It is 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.

Notably, the 2020 ADII captured data up to March this year, meaning the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on digital inclusion are still yet to be fully felt and the two case studies included in the report provide that insight.

COVID hits hard, but students and low-income earners hit hardest

There are approximately 800,000 secondary students in Australia from households who earn less than $35,000 a year. These households record an Index score more than 10 points below the national average. They are often lacking access to technology options, and suitable devices, pay a larger proportion of their household income for digital services, and have lower digital skills.

In a time when COVID-19 has forced periods of home-schooling on many, urgent support is needed to minimise the disruption to the education of these students.

Older Australians still shut out

Sadly, it’s no secret that people aged 65+ are one of the least digitally included groups in Australia. Around one in five older Australians do not use the internet and that is a problem in the COVID-19 era. It means older Australians are less able to mitigate against the isolation brought on by social restrictions with the use of technology and digital alternatives.

Although they are not the only digitally excluded group in this situation, two factors may further exacerbate the risks confronting older Australians. First, older Australians are much more likely to live alone and thereby rely on the types of public social contact restricted by the COVID-19 measures. Second, because of their heightened vulnerability to COVID-19, this cohort has been encouraged to be particularly vigilant in reducing their physical social contact.

It is a serious issue that those most vulnerable to COVID-19 are also most likely to be digitally excluded and with that comes very real health and mental health risks.

More than 2.5 million Australians remain entirely offline

The good news is that the national Access score has increased. This is reflective of the fact that Australian internet users are accessing the internet more often, using an increasingly diverse range of communications technologies and taking up high speed internet services.

However, in the past year the rate of increase in Access has slowed, rising only 0.6 points in the last twelve months. Given how Access has been the main driver behind the improvements to digital inclusion in Australia since the first report in 2014, this is an issue. There are still 2.5 million Australians who remain offline, nearly one in ten who are cut off from the digital services that have proved crucial to many during the pandemic.

Addressing attitudinal barriers and sharing the benefits of connectivity to those who are still without them is a key challenge.

Internet affordability continues to weigh on low-income Australians

The national average Affordability results in the report obscure the hardships faced by those households on low incomes. The ADII shows that the proportion of household income spent on internet access by those living in the lowest household income quintile has increased every year since 2014.

While the price-per-gigabyte has fallen year-on-year, households are now spending more money on internet services due to higher overall usage. This increase in spend has generally outpaced household income. For those earning less than $35,00, the per cent of household income spent on internet services now exceeds 4% (compared with the national average of 1.16%).

At the start of the pandemic, we announced several measures to help keep customers online by assisting with bills and providing more data for everyone but the ADII identifies that the Affordability of connectivity is the key challenge for the long term. This is why it’s important to continue industry discussions on access pricing, especially when it comes to fixed broadband in the future.

Digital inclusion is a shared national challenge, one made more pronounced by the impact of COVID-19. The ADII shows that there is more work to be done and urgent work is needed if all Australians are to benefit.

The full details of the report can be found at our Digital Inclusion hub.