A long-term goal of federal Labor to ensure all Australian children have access to an internet connection at home could become more achievable as the coronavirus pandemic makes it simpler to identify disadvantaged families.
A joint statement by shadow education and training minister Tanya Plibersek and shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland on Wednesday said up to 55,600 family households “are potentially missing out on the benefits of connectivity.”
“Recent developments with COVID-19 are no doubt placing these children, their parents and their teachers under pressure,” Plibersek and Rowland said.
“At a time when broadband has become a critical link between students, parents and their teachers, action is needed to ensure no child is left behind.”
Labor took a digital inclusion drive into the last federal election though it did not spell out in much detail at the time what this might entail.
Part of this was that Labor wanted to be able to properly scope the problem.
In a speech last year, Rowland said that “to obtain a better understanding of the affordability and take-up challenges facing low income and digitally excluded households, a Labor Government would ... facilitate enhanced collaboration between NBN Co and the Department of Social Services.”
It is understood that Labor planned to match DSS and NBN Co data to better understand affordability challenges facing low income segments, and then use these insights to design targeted subsidies.
This could have, for example, determined if certain low income cohorts were over-represented in certain NBN speed tiers, or perhaps under-represented overall when it came to even being connected to the NBN.
However, a new mechanism to scope the problem has emerged in the COVID-19 pandemic response; that is, as schools shift classes online for home-based consumption, they are quickly able to identify children that do not have adequate connectivity at home.
Labor is wanting to use such data aggregated at a state education level to properly scope a policy response.
“Eligible households would ideally be identified by schools, and local community and welfare organisations,” the party said.
However, it’s unlikely the response would be in place for children facing an immediate need for connectivity for their schooling.
Labor’s idea is “for a targeted initiative to support these families with free NBN broadband access for a period of at least 12 months.”
“One approach Labor considers has merit is the Commonwealth, with the agreement of industry, partnering with a single retail provider for the specific purpose of this initiative, with NBNCo providing a reverse wholesale rebate for 12-24 months to support a $0 retail price,” Plibersek and Rowland said.
“This model would help simplify delivery by providing eligible households with a single point of contact to get them connected more quickly.”
The model has some similarities to the provider of last resort (POLR) model used in NBN greenfields, where two operators - Telstra and NBN Co - are the default (or fallback) to deliver infrastructure in new estates.
A POLR model for disadvantaged households could provide a single (retail) point of contact to connect families identified by education departments and others as in need, Labor argues.