Tackling the digital divide
As each phase of the national broadband rollouts - Ultra Fast Broadband (UFB) and the second stage of the Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI2) - is completed, many are asking if the digital divide is no longer primarily about infrastructure access.
Enable officially finished its fibre network deployment to 200,000 homes, businesses and schools in the Greater Christchurch area last week, while Communications Minister Clare Curran has announced that the deadline for RBI2 will be brought forward a year to 2021.
In its report Solving the Digital Divides Together, InternetNZ has called for a target for New Zealand of Universal Access. "We believe that Internet access will shortly become a core necessity (similar to housing, sustenance, clothing medical care and necessary social services) to stay a connected member of society. If we are to continue to grow as a country we all need access to the internet and the ability to use it."
It identifies the groups in New Zealand most at risk of the digital divide as - people living in rural communities (an estimated 16,000 households won't have access to either Ultra Fast Broadband or the Rural Broadband Initiative), people with disabilities, migrants and refugees with English as a second language, families with children in low socio-economic communities, Māori and Pasifika youth, offenders and ex-offenders, and senior and older New Zealanders.
The report notes that core Government services are increasingly becoming "digital first". "Soon it will be the default to interact with Inland Revenue, Work and Income NZ, Identity and Passports and many other contact points, online."
During this year's Census, Stats NZ targeted 70% online participation, and Government Statistician Liz MacPherson says that target appears to have been exceeded, with interim results showing more than 82% took part online. However, early results also show that Census has delivered "full or partial information for at least 90 percent of individuals, compared with 94.5 percent for the 2013 Census."
There are Government initiatives in place that provide internet access to their clients. For example, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) provides online access to its 1.1 million client base through self-service kiosks in over 120 sites nationwide. This month the MSD issued a Request For Information to upgrade the current kiosk service, which is provided by Spark.
In addition, education was a primary target for the Ultra Fast Broadband target, and in December 2016, the Crown Company Network for Learning, which is responsible for delivering the network to over 2400 schools, celebrated completion of its rollout.
But while students are able to access "fast, reliable, safe, uncapped internet" during school hours, what happens outside school hours? 20/20 Trust Laurence Millar estimates there are 100,000 school-aged children with no online access in their homes. The Trust runs the Computers in Homes programme that has connected 19,000 families since 2001, however its Government funding was cut in June 2017.
The Labour/NZ First Government pledged to restore this funding in its Coalition agreement, but Millar noted there was nothing forthcoming in the Budget earlier this month. He says that although the Trust accepts that not all initiatives can be started in this current financial year, it is "concerned about a significant loss of social capital that has been built up over more than 20 years of supporting digital inclusion. This will create future costs and barriers to achieving increased digital inclusion."
Meanwhile, the Government's newly formed Digital Economy and Digital Inclusion Ministerial Advisory Group has, as one of its key questions to consider, "What would it take to eliminate digital divides by 2020?"
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