Digital divide exposed as Greens launch plan for free wi-fi in public housing

Digital divide exposed as Greens launch plan for free wi-fi in public housing
Sean Car

Greens MP for Melbourne Ellen Sandell has launched a plan to provide free wi-fi for the city’s public housing residents amid the release of a University of Melbourne report exposing digital inequality in the public housing sector.

The plan would provide free wi-fi to each high-rise apartment in Kensington, North Melbourne and Carlton, with each wireless network to have a minimum bandwidth of 50 megabits per second.

Ms Sandell said the initiative, which would administer connection to individual households via a modem in each unit, had been costed by the Victorian Parliamentary Budget Office at $2.3 million over the next four years.

The Greens said it would also lobby the state government to fund a 12-month digital access program providing three dedicated part-time staff at Kensington, North Melbourne and Carlton to support residents improve their digital literacy – costed at $200,000 over the next four years.

Ms Sandell said having called on the state government to provide free wi-fi in public housing for many years, she was “disappointed” it hadn’t yet acted on this “important issue”.

“During COVID, too many people didn’t have access to the internet at home and with the cost of living rising, many public housing residents cannot afford wi-fi. My plan would ensure that residents don’t have to miss out on this essential service that they need for study and work,” she said.

It comes amid the release of a study into digital inequality at the Carlton Housing Estate by the University of Melbourne last month, which exposed a setting marred by over-priced internet, low-quality connection and opaque, substandard service.

The report, titled Understanding Digital Inequality – An Analysis of Unequal Connectivity in Carlton Housing Estate, was funded by the Melbourne Social Equity Institute and the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) and was carried out in partnership with the Carlton Community Network and the Combined Agencies for Digital Inclusion (CADI) network.

The study responded to anecdotal reports during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns that households at the estate were finding it challenging to engage in home-schooling and work from home due to the cost to maintain sufficient bandwidth and purchasing devices for all members of the household.

The study showed that access to reliable and sufficiently fast internet were “not a mere matter of affordability, but also of inconsistent accessibility, as public housing residents are offered a substandard service”.

Data collected from participants through surveys, focus groups and interviews revealed that residents were routinely forced to resort to “hotspotting” off mobile phones for work and home-schooling due to poor connection and that this came at an additional cost of data charges. Residents also reported that the customer service of internet providers was often “inaccessible and unresponsive” throughout the process, from installation to troubleshooting.

Dr Ellen van Holstein, one of the report’s lead researchers, told North West City News that residents were too often being “kept in the dark” by internet providers about issues that were “general knowledge” among IT and housing staff. The insight that the internet signal is obstructed by the old concrete walls of the housing towers, for instance, was not shared with residents.

She said that as a result of not knowing what caused their internet to lag, residents were spending additional money on equipment such as modems and were opting to upgrade to more expensive data plans in an effort to improve speeds.

With 30 per cent of the estate’s approximately 3500 residents reportedly living on less than $300 per week and a pre-COVID unemployment rate of 48 per cent, she said such additional household costs “exacerbate existing inequalities”.

“In the end what we found is that, at the moment, there’s very little accountability because it’s a poorly regulated private market,” Dr van Holstein said.

“Internet providers can get away with offering incredibly low-quality connections with no sense of accountability in terms of whether that’s actually the quality people could expect for what they’re paying or not.”

According to Dr van Holstein, with Carlton Housing Estate reported to have a “slightly higher uptake of the NBN than other similar inner-city Melbourne public housing estates” such as those in North Melbourne and Kensington, the findings of the report only represent the tip of the iceberg of what’s a “systemic issue” in the public housing sector.

In a suite of recommendations, the report urges governments to set minimum quality standards and price settings which reflect that “many people are forced to use mobile data when the NBN fails”. The report also recommends the development of “not-for-profit alternatives” that would enable reliable and more affordable internet connections.

Researchers also recommend a stronger dialogue between residents and providers: “Governments, internet companies and social housing providers should speak to people who find it hard to access the internet because the involvement of housing providers can help make sure that the internet works better inside social housing estates,” the report stated.

Because the study was conducted in collaboration with the Combined Agencies for Digital Inclusion (CADI) network, that is made up of various local community groups and the Cities of Yarra and Melbourne, the study had been able to inform advocacy for more equitable internet provision, Dr van Holstein said.

“Because of the connection between research and advocacy that’s been done by that group [CADI], the topic ended up being tabled and discussed in parliament and has really become part of the agenda of a few parliamentarians. It’s exciting to see the wheels starting to turn a little bit on this.”

“There’s really some structural change that’s needed that’s not going to happen without some action from politicians and some minimum standards for what people should get for what they pay.”

Greens MP Ms Sandell, who has has long advocated for digital equality in public housing, reiterated that it was “disappointing that in 2022” there were still barriers to people accessing the internet.

“The pandemic highlighted the importance of having access to reliable internet for work, study and being able to stay connected to friends and family, but many people in public housing missed out due to cost, or the difficulties and complexities getting connected in a high-rise tower,” Ms Sandell said.

Public Housing Residents’ Network president Cory Memery echoed the recommendations of the report, stating that all public housing residents “should have access to affordable, reliable, quality internet services”.

“As the report says: ‘access to the internet should be seen as a human right’,” Mr Memery said. “It is the gateway to so many services and opportunities that residents should have.”

“It is possible for whole buildings to have a single internet provider that residents could log into individually. Public hospitals have it across Victoria, as do council libraries, hotels and airports, to name just a few examples. Low fees could be set for cost recovery for a single not-for-profit provider for each building.”

“The Public Housing Residents’ Network and the Save Public Housing Collective calls on the Department of Fairness, Families and Housing to live up to its title and review this highly valuable report and investigate our proposal as soon as possible.”

A spokesperson for the Victorian Government said Homes Victoria was considering the findings on the University of Melbourne’s report into the Carlton Housing Estate.

“We’re making sure internet access is accessible to all Victorians, particularly those living in public and community housing by installing the NBN in all high-rise tower units,” the spokesperson said. “Our Digital Strategy 2021-2026 provides a blueprint for how Victoria will accelerate change and investment in digital infrastructure over the next five years.”

“Homes Victoria is working with organisations such as Star Health and the City of Yarra to improve digital inclusion, including education programs for elderly renters and free Wi-Fi in open spaces or community rooms.”

It says it also provided more than 90,000 devices and 28,000 data dongles to families to support remote learning during the pandemic, as well as “a further $4 million this year to improve and upgrade libraries so more community members have access to affordable wi-fi”.

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