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Australia’s Digital Divide Will Be Difficult To Bridge

There is quite a disparity between urban and rural in the country

13Jun

The divide in Australia between its cities and rural areas is a stark one. With populations almost exclusively concentrated in pockets of what is an enormous country, Australia has one of the lowest population densities in the world. Some 89% of the population live in urban areas - compared with 82% in the UK and 81% in the United States - and 82% of Australians live within 50km of the coast. In fact, areas of dense population are so rare that 84.2% of the land area sees just 0.34% of the nation’s populace, at a density of 0.1 persons or less per square kilometer.

Almost everything in Australia is identified with relation to its nearest major city. For a city with a relatively small central business district, Melbourne’s suburbs sprawl from coast to bush, and even its more remote outliers refer to themselves as ‘from Melbourne’. ACT exists almost solely to accommodate Canberra, which exists almost solely to accommodate parliament, and ask a Dunsborough resident where they’re from and they’ll usually say: ‘A couple of hours south of Perth.’

Issues of connectivity in the more remote parts of Australia are pertinent, and the bush has become a battleground for politicians in the current federal elections, with connectivity shaping up as a sleeper issue. Despite being (relatively) near their state’s major city, many smaller Australian towns are woefully under serviced in terms of connectivity. And the percentage of households connected to the internet differs greatly between Australia’s states and territories. ACT - admittedly a special case - sees 94.1% of its households connected, while the figure in Tasmania is around the 81.7% mark. As one might expect, those in major cities have a greater access (88%) to the internet, when compared with those in inner regional (82%) and outer regional/remote areas (79%) of the country.

Education, which is of course heavily influenced by factors like region and income, itself affects the likelihood of connectivity by more than any of the other isolated factors. Of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, 96% use the internet, compared with just 77% for ‘those with year 12 or below,’ according to the Conversation. These issues of connectivity are specific to the very unique geography of Australia, but the US faces similar challenges that arise from a population consisting almost solely of either urban concentration or relative obscurity.

Given that a great deal of the conversation around the federal election has been about the bush, these connectivity issues are currently at the fore of Australian politics, and could therefore see improvement in the coming years. There is plenty of evidence, too, that Australian business would benefit from an improvement to the digital infrastructure. The most basic benefit is that, of course, more connected Australians means greater opportunities for effective digital marketing, particularly for businesses that service those outside of the city centers.

Some 65% of Australians use digital devices to research products before their shopping trip, with 31% using a device during a retail experience. And even despite the population situation, Australia is currently third of all developed countries in terms of digital influence over in-store decision making, with 40% of visits influenced compared to just 27% in the UK, for example. The influence is a positive one - Australians who use digital before and during a shopping trip have a 25% higher likelihood of conversion than those who don’t. The digital revolution has affected business the world over, and there is no reason that rural or outlying Australia should be excluded from it.

Fibre to the Premises, what the Conversation refers to as ‘the Rolls Royce option’, would cost an estimated $30 billion if it is to be given to all or at least a vast majority. With Canberra understandably viewing this as too great an outlay, it is likely rural homes will be connected to the NBN’s Sky Muster satellite. The problem, though, is that the service delivered will be notably inferior to that offered in the major cities (despite being infinitely better than current measures), a distinction many fear will cement regional Australia’s ‘second class status’, according to the Conversation. In the race to get Australia properly connected, both the political and corporate incentives are there. Though, if the unique geography necessitates a second-rate service, the digital divide in Australia will run just as deep, even if it appears less stark. 

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