Remote First Nations communities have some of the worst digital access and affordability rates in Australia. They’re also places where reliable communications and accurate information can mean the difference between life and death.

Image: The Wilcannia research team, from left to right: REDI.E co-researchers Anthony Wiltshire and Shaylin Whyman, REDI.E team leader Brendon Adams, Dr Daniel Featherstone, Dr Lyndon Ormond-Parker and Dr Indigo Holcombe-James.

When COVID-19 arrived in the remote New South Wales town of Wilcannia in August last year, it threw the communications challenges facing this isolated, largely Aboriginal community of 750 people, into stark relief.

Within a few weeks of being declared a public health emergency, dozens of health workers, police and emergency services personnel poured into Wilcannia – bringing with them a host of temporary cell towers and mobile base stations to connect the crisis to the outside world.

In September, Telstra installed a new 4G mobile small cell, which has improved connectivity near the local hospital. However, without other telecommunication providers in the area and broadband choice limited to nbn™ Satellite, the community has few options for digital connectivity.

“In fact, the situation here is actually worse than it was before the pandemic,” says social researcher Dr Featherstone, “because like most of Australia, more people are trying to work and study from home, access online services, and stream entertainment – and the local mobile network simply can’t support the digital demand.”

A Senior Research Fellow at RMIT, Dr Featherstone leads a team undertaking a pioneering study on the use of communications and media services in remote First Nations communities across Australia. A partnership between Telstra and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society, the ‘Mapping the Digital Gap’ project aims to plug a vital gap in the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII), which has been measuring online access, affordability, and ‘digital ability’ across Australia since 2016.

Between 2022 and 2024, the team will travel from the Kimberley and the deserts of Central Australia to Cape York and the Torres Strait, partnering with First Nations organisations and community co-researchers to survey and interview hundreds of residents and agencies in 12 remote communities each year. The project is the largest survey of its kind ever undertaken, designed to inform public policy, corporate support, and community action at a time when communications in remote communities have never been so important – nor so inequitable.

When more than mobile technology is needed

Mapping the Digital Gap is a missing piece of critical research that will back decades of research, trials and programs to improve digital literacy and digital inclusion for Australia’s remote communities. Dr Featherstone in collaboration with Telstra and universities has been pushing for greater internet coverage and accessible computer facilities in First Nations communities for more than 20 years.

“The reality is that mobile technology is not the only solution to support the online learning, workplace skills and e-commerce so desperately needed in remote communities,” says Dr Featherstone. “With the rapid digital transformation to online service delivery and physical services being withdrawn, programs are needed to ensure digital access and skills development to use these services – but these programs need resourcing.”

Dr Featherstone has a strong record in getting things done in remote communities, having been involved in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands Telecommunications Project in the 2000s, setting up the inDigiMOB mentoring program (a partnership of Telstra with First Nations Media Australia), and the establishment of the Broadband for the Bush Alliance and the annual Indigenous Focus Day. “The bottom line is that public-private partnerships should share the responsibility and the costs for this work,” says Dr Featherstone.

Growing digital gaps

According to Dr Featherstone, the digital gap in remote communities has actually become worse in recent years. “Over the past four years, despite all the efforts made, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has continued to grow when it comes to digital access and affordability,” says Dr Featherstone, a prominent advocate of Target 17 of Closing the Gap – which sets out that, by 2026, Australia’s First Peoples will have equal levels of digital inclusion.

Indeed, the ADII reports show the ‘digital gap’ facing our First Nations people grew from 5.8 points in 2018 to 7.9 points in 2020. While the 2021 ADII report did not have sufficient First Nations respondents to accurately quantify the gap, all indicators suggest it has increased even further during COVID-19.

Mapping the Digital Gap is setting out to change this, by canvassing remote residents in local language and in detail about their communications practices and challenges, and ‘mapping’ their responses in a series of site-specific reports – designed to help local organisations develop digital inclusion plans, identify resource needs, and find potential partners.

“Digital inclusion is supposed to be part of Closing the Gap, and this is our evidence that we need to show to the government that we need the same type of service in Wilcannia that we get in Dubbo, Sydney or Melbourne,” says Brendon Adams, Site Manager of the Regional Enterprise Development Institute, or REDI.E, which partnered with Dr Featherstone’s team in Wilcannia. “Right now, we’re working really hard to compile this evidence together.”

Towards digital equality

For Mr Adams and his community, the data could literally mean the difference between life and death. Network outages and poor coverage can have serious implications on people’s health and safety, especially when communities rely so heavily on support from health and emergency services outside their community. “In our community, like other remote communities, it’s essential that we voice to the rest of Australia the issues that we face on a daily basis,” he says. “Having reliable communications impacts on our education, our employment, and our daily lives through our social and emotional wellbeing. This is about aiming for equal human rights for our community, by having the same mobile and internet services as other parts of Australia.”

Daniel Featherstone says that with more users and higher bandwidth applications placing increased pressure on mobile networks in remote towns and communities, there will be a host of new needs. “In Wilcannia, ADSL is no longer available and there is very little uptake of the only NBN option of a satellite service. Almost everyone here uses pre-paid mobile, which costs $3-4 per gigabyte compared to less than $1 for most post-paid services. And the overreliance on mobiles creates significant barriers to developing the digital skills needed for work and learning. Other solutions need to be considered.”

In a place of low literacy rates, poor digital literacy presents its own challenges, with people generally eschewing email, word processing, and other work-based and learning applications in favour of mobile apps and communications. “People in remote communities really value communications, but of course they prefer the flexibility of mobiles,” says Dr Featherstone. “There’s a clear need for more community-access computers and free public wi-fi, not to mention general digital skills and cyber-safety training.”

The Digital Inclusion Plans being developed with each community will outline their main issues and challenges to digital inclusion, what infrastructure exists, and local recommendations to the most pressing needs. “Strategies may include establishing public wi-fi networks, accessing computers, developing practical training resources, or seeking improved infrastructure,” says Dr Featherstone.

“After 20 years of engaging with government and industry in this space, I’m confident this project will finally provide the much-needed evidence required to guide practical interventions to improve the woeful levels of digital inclusion in many remote communities.”

For more information about the Australian Digital Inclusion Index and Mapping the Digital Gap, please visit the Mapping The Digital Gap project.