Conroy skips beat on digital inclusion

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Conroy skips beat on digital inclusion

DBCDE programs still only benefit NBN sites.

The Federal Government has reserved action on recommendations by the Sinclair Review to expand digital inclusion programs beyond NBN release sites in regional Australia.

The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy yesterday released its formal response (pdf) to the Sinclair Review (pdf), exactly three months after the Review was made public.

The department said it was "immediately progressing 23 of the 33 recommendations", explaining that the remaining 10 required "further consideration".

Recommendations not being actioned immediately include those seeking expansion of existing DBCDE programs to benefit a wider cross-section of regional and rural telecommunications users than those imminently set to receive the NBN.

The Sinclair Review raised concerns over the apparent link between NBN access and digital economic readiness.

"The committee was concerned that some people, carriers and communities appear to be waiting for the rollout of the NBN in their areas before participating in the digital economy," the review noted.

"For communities that are located in areas that will not receive the NBN for a number of years, there is a risk that significant sections of these communities may not be prepared to participate in the digital economy.

"While the NBN will provide a platform for individuals and organisations to participate more fully in the digital economy, there are opportunities to participate in the digital economy now using existing broadband services.

"It would be a poor outcome should regional communities decide to wait for the NBN rollout in their areas before they consider participating in the digital economy, particularly if they are not part of the early rollout schedule".

To address this, the Review sought an expansion of the $13.6 million Digital Hubs scheme, which exposes users in NBN coverage zones to NBN-enabled services and "online training", to non-NBN areas.

It sought a similar expansion of the $10 million Digital Enterprise program, which attempts to show businesses and not-for-profit organisations in NBN areas how they can increase their digital engagement.

The Review also sought an expansion of the $17.1 million Digital Local Government program, which trains councils in NBN areas on how to take advantage of digital technology.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy briefly acknowledged the Sinclair Review's concerns in a statement yesterday, but appeared to believe the Sinclair Review was praising the effectiveness of the programs, rather than calling for their NBN-exclusivity to be broken.

"The Government will continue to review the effectiveness of these programs and consider their extension as part of future policy processes," Conroy said.

The Government gave no official reason for leaving the recommendations under "consideration", though it could be related to forward funding for the programs.

Indigenous action

Several recommendations on improving indigenous access to telecommunications services are also up for "consideration".

This included a recommendation to continue and expand the Indigenous Communications Program, again with a focus on training and digital literacy.

The DBCDE agreed to part of the recommendation, revealing plans to trial wifi enabled community phones in six locations, "with the results available in early 2013".

However, it also left for consideration a recommendation that it and the Australian Communications and Media Authority monitor and report regularly on the "digital divide" in remote Indigenous communities.

NBN piggyback?

The Government made positive noises about granting space on NBN fixed wireless towers to third-party carriers in a bid to increase the availability of mobile coverage in those areas.

"The Government encourages NBN Co and mobile carriers to work together to take advantage of the NBN fixed wireless towers to improve mobile coverage across regional Australia," Conroy said.

Conroy said he would refer the matter "to the NBN Co Board and the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association for their advice".

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