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Assessing New Zealand’s ‘digital divide’

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A new government report has revealed a digital divide exists in New Zealand. Some communities and households find themselves without adequate internet access. In the report, the key factor identified as influencing internet connectivity levels was household income. Along with other data, the report will serve as a valuable touchstone for the government’s work to bridge the digital divide. 

Studies have shown that the most digitally-excluded groups are adults with disabilities, and children with special needs. Also, senior citizens, Maori, Pasifika, and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are among those with limited access to digital technology. The report shows there is a digital disparity between urban and rural areas. The report, using collected data from a 2001 consensus, highlighted that homes located in the main urban areas of New Zealand had the highest rates of internet access, whereas households in rural areas had the lowest. The data showed that households in Wellington and Auckland had the highest level of internet access (44 percent).

One of the main problems rural households face is slow, unreliable internet connections. As they are situated some distance from a major urban area, improving New Zealand’s rural infrastructure is a vital yet huge task for the country’s construction sector. The government backed Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) has already updated over 300,000 household’s broadband connections through installing cutting edge fibre-to-premises broadband systems in those areas. During Phase 1 of the plan, 154 new towers have been constructed across the country. In addition, 110,000 copper lines have been upgraded over the period.  

There is also a correlation between internet access and population size. The report revealed that those living in smaller centres are less likely to be connected. Internet NZ has created a digital map to show the divides across the country. The purpose of the map is to give people information about how the digital divides are impacting people’s lives in different communities. The team behind the map hopes that it will aid national decision makers when they address the problems. The map makes clear that if the country is to take a step forward digitally, they must get the rural areas up to speed with the cities.

Given the relentless pace of technological change, the need to fix the divide has never been greater. Those who don’t have access to the internet are in danger of missing out on key information. The internet has become the number one public resource worldwide, for basic activities such as online banking and communicating with others. Equally, sectors such as healthcare are becoming increasingly digital. The divide is holding our country back in terms of its development and the well-being of our population.

Communications Minister Clare Curran wants to close the digital divide by 2020. With the government now making plans for the fifth generation of mobile technology, there’s a concern that communities without good internet access will get left behind. The government has promised in its latest update to improve mobile coverage for over 1,000km of State Highway, as well as 100+ tourist locations.  Curran has also said she is open to subsiding broadband for those who struggle to afford it, in a bid to ensure everyone has access to the internet. However, how impactful will these changes be if the country’s infrastructure, especially in more rural regions, is inadequate?

Digital technology has fast become central to modern society and life, so it’s an imperative that the government finds ways to reduce the digital gap in New Zealand. However, the task of closing the digital divide between rural and urban areas looks set to be as much as of an infrastructure construction task as a question of improving technology.

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