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The life-changing potential of digital inclusion

The life-changing potential of digital inclusion

The life-changing potential of digital inclusion

Understanding digital barriers – and how we can work together to address them

by Diane Rutter, Laura Chisholm and Victoria Yates

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Australians’ reliance on technology has never been greater and it’s growing by the day. In PwC Australia’s recent Citizen Survey 2022 we found the use of digital services has again increased significantly in the past 18 months, particularly in NSW and Victoria where approximately 45% of citizens state an increase in use of digital channels. 

Crucially, digital services are making a large proportion of people feel more connected. At a time when people are feeling more isolated than ever, 43% of people agree that digital services have helped them feel connected. Close to half agree the government’s digitisation of services and processes have made services more accessible for all, and this holds true across all age groups. 

Whilst the results are extremely positive, for those who are less technologically literate or who do not have the means or situation to access these services, the divide is widening. A third are feeling left behind by technology (up from a quarter in June 2020), and this sentiment is not reserved for older generations. Indeed, citizens’ social and economic prospects are diminished without full access to digital products and online services. 

Disadvantaged demographic groups in Australia face barriers to digital inclusion everyday, including accessibility, affordability and the ability to use digital government services. Exclusion from the digital world can exacerbate other forms of social exclusion such as access to health services, employment opportunities and education. 

According to the 2021 Australian Digital Inclusion Index, the number of Australians who are highly excluded from digital society has declined, however the number remains significant at 11% of the population.1 To put this into perspective, this translates to about 2.8 million Australians, which is almost equivalent to the entire population of Brisbane.

In this article, we highlight three major barriers to digital inclusion: access, affordability, and ability. We consider these barriers from the perspective of everyday Australians, and we outline how governments can break down these barriers to deliver services more equitably.

1. Lack of digital access prevents many Australians from fully participating in society

“Digital access” is the ability to engage with digital technologies and leverage capabilities to fully participate in modern society. In our Citizen Survey 2022 we found that while 44% agree the government has made the internet connection more accessible for all citizens, there remains 1 in 5 who do not agree. 

While digital access is increasing overall, this is not the story for everyone. In fact, the 2021 Australian Digital Inclusion Index found many Australians are being left behind (notably: mobile-only users, people aged 75+, people who did not complete secondary school, and people on lower incomes).2

Digital access is often determined by socioeconomic factors such as income, education and geography. Specific demographic groups are significantly marginalised - including remote/rural communities, those living with a disability, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Without internet access, these people risk missing the benefits of online resources in essential areas such as health, employment, and education. 

Given the range of services that are available online, and benefits available in both speed and access to services, it is critically important that vulnerable communities are included. But alarmingly, 65% of Australians deemed ‘excluded’ and ‘highly excluded’ believe that they have no need to use the internet more often.3 This suggests they are unaware of how their personal and community prospects could be enhanced with greater digital access and skills; they therefore see little reason to address this. 

The technology needs of rural and remote communities are particularly unique given the lack of infrastructure to support digital technology services and products. Barriers to accessing digital technology are formidable.4 The digital divide between regions reflects the often patchy, unreliable, or entirely absent internet and mobile coverage in many rural and remote areas.5

Sam’s story: Disconnected and disadvantaged by digital poverty

Sam is a student in South Australia suffering from digital poverty. She is one of the 7% of young South Australians with no access to Wi-Fi at home.6

Sam’s digital poverty impacts virtually every aspect of her life: 

  • Without access to reliable Wi-Fi, Sam is unable to participate in education at home and unable to improve her digital skills (which are commonly identified as being essential to young people’s future success7). 
  • Without reliable Wi-Fi, Sam struggles with “life admin” (including organising extracurricular activities, rostering work at her part-time job, scheduling medical appointments, and maintaining a healthy social life). She finds it particularly frustrating when she has completed an online form and the connection drops right before she clicks ‘submit’.
  • Without mobile coverage, Sam often feels unsafe when she is outside the home. She is unable to contact family members in emergencies, is prone to getting lost (due to limited access to maps) and often runs late (due to limited access to bus timetables/updates). 

While free public Wi-Fi is available in some places, Sam has connectivity issues due to overcrowding of the network and the fact her home has no Wi-Fi reception. She says that having to stay at school to use technology “feels like a punishment rather than support”.

(Illustrative example only)

Governments, both state and federally, are making significant investments to increase coverage however these will take time given the large geographic areas that need to be covered and the close proximity required to achieve higher speeds. 

A growing number of communities are leading the charge to provide better internet access and connection to their region through shared local internet access points, provided by government or other sources. These communities are establishing community knowledge centres or hubs to provide safe communal spaces for people to access local and cultural knowledge through books, the internet, and other forms of digital technology. 

There are also examples of governments introducing free public Wi-Fi to promote internet access. The Northern Territory Office of Aboriginal Affairs approved Easyweb to deploy free public Wi-Fi systems in four Aboriginal communities. The project aimed to address some of the remote communications challenges for the people living in (and visiting) the communities. This allowed community members to switch from paid-for 3G mobile networks to free community Wi-Fi. It also enhanced tourist experiences, allowing connection to people on a national and global scale.

Opportunities to remove barriers to digital access

There are opportunities for government, not-for-profits and industry to build on the work to date to directly increase internet connectivity and/or indirectly reduce the barriers to using services in environments of low or no connectivity.

Directly increase internet connectivity via:

  • Engaging with and listening to local community leaders to understand their aspirations for new technologies and tailor solutions to the individual needs of each community.
  • Sharing the success of community-led initiatives across states and territories and seek to iterate, expand and scale these initiatives.
  • Considering opportunities to co-invest with industry and remove red-tape to get connectivity where it's most needed.
  • Working with industry to find innovative solutions to internet connection (e.g. leveraging satellite technology or PPPs with other organisations to expand their network).

Indirectly address the exclusivity caused by lack of internet connectivity via:

  • Ensuring government services can work in ‘offline mode’; where citizens can upload/download information when they have access (e.g. through use of apps).
  • Making more content available for download.

2. As prices escalate, digital affordability remains elusive

Unfortunately, when it comes to affordability, Australia lags behind many other nations. In 2016, a World Economic Forum study placed Australia lowest in terms of ICT capability affordability.8 While half of all respondents to PwC’s Citizen Survey 2022 agree access to phone and mobile data is affordable, there remains 18% who believe this not to be the case. And since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made Australia’s affordability problem more acute. According to the ADII 2021 Affordability measure, 14% of all Australians would need to pay more than 10% of their household income to gain quality, reliable connectivity.9 The challenge of affordability is further exacerbated for mobile-only users, due to the cost per gigabyte being higher than a fixed connection.10

The NBN was implemented with the intention of bridging the digital divide, however NBN prices have continued to rise to reflect more inclusions,11 and the price of maintenance and construction remain higher in rural and remote countries, putting this solution out of reach for many vulnerable Australians.

When digital access is not affordable due to the cost of data, devices, software or maintenance, individuals and communities are more likely to face barriers such as unreliable internet service and limited access to devices. This, in turn, makes it harder for disadvantaged groups to achieve positive education, employment, and health and wellbeing outcomes.

Katie’s story: Pandemic pushes affordable internet further out of reach

Katie is a single mother to two children, living in rural Australia. As her children get older their needs and reliance on technology for their schooling and social life keep expanding and they constantly complain about having to share a mobile phone and her old work computer. This causes issues and frustration when apps and devices only allow for a single user per device. 

Katie and her family have internet access at home, but bandwidth is an issue on her low-cost internet plan, meaning Wi-Fi connection is unreliable. Old technology devices also lead to even slower load times.

To secure a quality, reliable internet connection, Katie would need to pay more than 10% of her income towards internet.12 Providing her children with their own devices or getting their existing devices upgraded would cost even more. Between rent, groceries, school fees and other living expenses, Katie cannot afford this upgrade. Katie’s affordability challenge is further exacerbated by the pandemic-induced lockdowns, with her children’s reliance on multi-functional mobile devices, with the cost per gigabyte higher for mobile devices than for a fixed connection.

(Illustrative example only)

Katie’s story is common for someone in a remote community where device usage differs from use in urban areas. In remote communities, everybody in a single household may depend on a single device for access to the internet, including vital services. (For example, a single low-income household may accommodate large family structures and communal, shared living). Not only does this limit access to online services, but it may also pose privacy risks for individuals accessing online banking, government services (e.g. myGov), emails or health services from the same device.

Opportunities to tackle affordability

There are opportunities for government, not-for-profits and industry to build on work to date to directly address challenges with affordability but also increase affordability indirectly by building services that are optimised to work in a lower cost environment.

Directly address affordability via:

  • Increasing awareness and ease of accessing low-cost services available to low-income groups (e.g. charity services now providing free data, and second-hand devices).
  • Working with telecommunications providers to get critical services excluded from usage charges.
  • Developing fixed line and mobile service packages that are tailored for vulnerable groups such as low socio-economic groups and rural communities.

Indirectly address exclusion resulting from affordability via:

  • Developing digital services that allow for multi-user.
  • Optimise services for mobile use.
  • Testing to ensure services work on both newer and older technologies (e.g. smaller screen sizes, older software variants, not reliant on newer technology such as Face ID).
  • Optimising development for low data consumption (e.g. small image sizes, no requirements for downloads).

3. The chasm in digital ability is widening between Australians

Identifying which online skills are needed is a moving target. Australians need to maintain existing skills while keeping pace with the influx of new technologies. While the 2021 Australian Digital Inclusion Index demonstrated there was a slight improvement in Australia’s collective digital ability (the national average increased 0.8 points to 64.4%) only 14% of highly excluded Australians improved their digital skills. In other words: COVID-19 was not a universal upskiller for digital ability.13 Digital ability improvement was markedly less significant for older Australians, with only 14% of 65-75 year-olds improving their skills (compared to 45% of 18-34 year-olds).14 It’s a similar picture in regional communities, where only 23% of regional Australians reported digital upskilling, compared to 37% of metro Australians.15

The correlation between digital ability and education levels, income, and age reveals a gap where those who are not engaging with technology through work and/or education have fewer opportunities to maintain and improve digital skills.

The COVID-19 vaccine passport illustrated the lack of digital ability among disconnected Australians. Difficulties were commonly experienced when multiple family members shared a single phone and individually tried to use the passport function. There were also difficulties uploading the passport to a mobile wallet if this function had not been used before. A lack of digital literacy also contributed to only 6.13 million Australians (just under 25% of the population) downloading the COVID Safe App. One commonly cited reason for not downloading the app was “uncertainty on how data would be collected and used”.16

These results are supported by PwC’s Citizen Survey 2022 that revealed a new source of exclusion is trust. Citizens also won’t embrace services, unless they’re sure their data is secure. Almost 80% of citizens expect government to use and store personal data ethically and securely (and this rises to 90% for those who have high trust in government). But only 38% are more comfortable sharing their data online than attending government services in person and this has not improved over time (36% in June 2020).

Tom’s story: Left behind due to a lack of digital ability

Tom is a senior citizen who has been out of the workforce for 12 years. Having grown up before the Digital Age and without work as a catalyst to upskill or reskill, Tom is not confident using technology. Before COVID-19, Tom was able to ‘make do’ with his limited digital skills, but the rapid pandemic-induced shift to digital life made Tom feel left behind.

Tom says that his lack of digital ability prevents him from participating in fundamental parts of everyday life, including accessing essential government services. Tom has difficulties uploading his vaccination records into his mobile wallet, having never used this feature before. He heavily relies on his children and grandchildren to guide him through essential online processes.

Tom has attended a Tech Savvy Seniors Program at his local library but reports difficulties remembering all the information (he also believes the information was not tailored for the everyday services he needs anyway). Feeling confused by the influx of new technologies, Tom is finding it difficult to keep up with everything he needs to know to use the services he requires everyday.

(Illustrative example only)

Opportunities to bring all Australians on the digital journey

Government, not-for-profits and industry are all addressing digital literacy through various tailored programs for individual groups as well as addressing long-term education opportunities to grow STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics) skills across Australia. There are opportunities to combine forces and build an ecosystem to directly support growth in digital literacy directly through programs to grow skills, as well as indirectly to build support networks and simple, intuitive services.

Directly address digital ability by:

  • Building, funding and contributing to digital literacy programs for at-risk groups (e.g. the elderly, low income, culturally and linguistically diverse communities etc).
  • Supporting and scaling programs such as the Be Connected program17 that empower continued maintenance and upskilling of digital skills for those excluded from the workforce or education sector.
  • Leveraging the not-for-profit sector to design and deliver tailored digital skills courses targeted at different sectors of the community (e.g. vision impaired, low literacy).
  • Providing opportunities for excluded citizens to participate in the technology sector workforce/ education sphere in order to integrate digital upskilling into daily life.

Indirectly address digital ability by:

  • Adopting inclusive design practices; bringing people with lived experience in the co-design of government services to make sure they are as easy as possible for everyone to use.
  • Making it easier for citizens to have nominees to manage their digital affairs on their behalf.
  • Provide education and support that grows understanding of privacy, cyber risks and safety issues including scams, identity theft and cyberbullying that may detract from positive usage.
  • Ethical engineering to manage for unintended consequences.

Citizens recognise government has made significant progress in innovating services to make things easier. Through digital inclusion we can ensure all citizens are able to share in the benefits. By collaborating across sectors, sharing lessons learned and embedding governance and measures to track digital inclusion across all areas significant progress can be made.


This perspective is shared as part of PwC Australia’s Connected Government thought leadership series. Reimagining citizen services and digital products by connecting the brand promise with how governments operate, resulting in a seamless, human experience.

To have a discussion about how these insights can help your organisation please contact us.

6 Sam and her story is adapted from information provided by the 2021 South Australian Commissioner for Children and Young People’s 2021 Digital Poverty Report at: 

Contact us

Diane Rutter

Diversity, Inclusion and Wellness Leader, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 431 164 710

Laura Chisholm

Partner, Digital Transformation, PwC Australia

Victoria Yates

Director, PwC Australia

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