It gave me great pleasure to recently officially open the Broadband for Seniors kiosk in Huonville in southern Tasmania. The small town of Huonville is the gateway to the Huon Valley and the far south, the southernmost regions of Tasmania, and access to broadband is of the utmost importance to these communities. Tonight I would like to talk a little bit about the Broadband for Seniors initiative and the benefits it is delivering for social inclusion in Australia. I would like to talk about the benefits of the Broadband for Seniors program for Huonville and the benefits of the National Broadband Network and its importance for Australia’s economy, social enterprise and the delivery of government services.Broadband for Seniors, or BFS, is part of a wider Australian government initiative called Making Ends Meet—Plan for Older Australians, People with Disabilities and Carers. It provides free access to computers, broadband services and training to older Australians. The Gillard Labor government committed $5 million a year over three years to develop and implement the BFS initiative. The initiative is being delivered by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, in partnership with a consortium made up of NEC Australia, Adult Learning Australia, the Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association and the University of the Third Age, or U3A Online.
The Gillard government’s $15 million investment will deliver 2,000 BFS kiosks to organisations that support seniors. These kiosks are aimed at people aged 50 years and over who have never had the opportunity to learn how to operate a computer or explore the internet. I am sure a number of other senators will probably agree that defining a senior as someone over the age of 50 is a little too generous—not that I would want to begrudge anyone else in their fifties benefiting from this initiative. This program is a great way for community groups to increase their assets, as the kiosks are gifted to the hosting organisations and become their property. In turn, these organisations must use the kiosks exclusively for the BFS project until the end of June 2011.
So why target seniors? The Australian Bureau of Statistics conducts a regular survey of computer and internet use in Australia. In 2008-09, only 50 per cent of Australians aged 65 and over had access to a computer at home. This compares with over 90 per cent of Australians aged 15 to 45. In the same year, 46 per cent of Australians aged 55 years and over—or less than half—accessed the internet. For Australians aged 65 years and over, this figure was only 31 per cent, or less than a third. This compares to over 90 per cent of Australians aged under 35.
There are many reasons why older people are not as enthusiastic as the rest of the population in using computer technology and accessing the internet. Those who have not grown up with the technology can find it intimidating, especially if they have not taken the initiative to learn how to use it. They may also adopt the attitude of: ‘Well, I’ve got by fine without it for most of my life, so why bother now?’ without fully appreciating the benefits that the technology can bring to their lives. The availability and performance of the technology can also be a barrier, especially in remote areas.
To the Tasmanian government’s credit, they embarked on a program over a decade ago of establishing a network of online access centres which is now providing computer and broadband access to Tasmanians at 66 sites across the state. With the BFS initiative, this access is broadened even further in Tasmania for people over the age of 50. It is important to encourage seniors to use computers, to gain skills and confidence in the technology, and to give them access to broadband, because computers are a great tool for social inclusion.
It is timely to mention this, given that this week, 20 to 28 November, is Social Inclusion Week. The theme of Social Inclusion Week is ‘Get Involved. Get Connected!’ Much of social inclusion is about connectedness because it is about access to the lines of communication that connect us to a broader society. Broadband, as we all know, is a great connector. It helps connect us to friends and it helps connect us to family. While almost everyone can communicate by telephone, it can be an expensive option for people on low incomes, such as age pensioners, so technologies such as email and Skype can be handy alternatives. Broadband also helps us to connect to government services, and this is especially important for people in remote communities who have to drive long distances to visit the shopfront of a government service. Of course, even connection to private services is an important enabler for social inclusion, as online access dramatically increases the range of goods and services we can purchase, and this can be very empowering for consumers looking for a competitive service.
I will say a bit about the Huonville kiosk. As I said, I had the privilege of launching Australia’s southernmost BFS kiosk in the recently developed Huon Valley Police and Community Youth Club. I might just mention as an aside that the Huon Valley PCYC is a fantastic asset for a regional community. The Australian government, I am pleased to say, contributed $950,000 for its construction. Since its opening in September last year, the Huon Valley PCYC has become a focal point for a great deal of community activity, providing a wide range of sporting and meeting facilities—and now computer facilities. As a focal point for community activity, it lends itself well to being a good location for a BFS kiosk.
The Huonville BFS kiosk has been established by a not-for-profit community group called Continuing Education and Training Committee for the Huon Inc., or CETCH. CETCH was established to provide low-cost computer use, internet access and basic training courses for people in the Huon Valley. In the Huon Valley, geographic isolation is a major issue for many residents. That in turn can lead to social isolation and a lack of access to government, business and community services. In connecting communities there is only so much government can do to provide face-to-face access to government services and to put in place infrastructure and public transport to break down the transport barriers. While these initiatives are all very important in promoting social inclusion for isolated communities, technology is also a great leveller.
CETCH well understands the importance of information and communications technology in improving access to friends and family, government and community services, as they have been delivering computer courses to Huon Valley residents for a long time. They provide an invaluable service for people living in the Huon Valley and, with their BFS kiosk, will be able to improve their facilities dramatically and establish a permanent home in the Huon Valley PCYC.
Through their kiosk, CETCH will provide training to people 50 years of age and over in basic functions such as using Internet Explorer, Gmail and WordPad. These applications are the bare essentials for giving those with basic levels of IT literacy the chance to communicate with friends and family and to engage with government and business services online. I would like to congratulate the president of CETCH, Kevin Parkinson, on this initiative and the difference it is making to the lives of seniors in the Huon Valley.
As of 16 November 2010 there were 1,512 BFS kiosks established around Australia, including 62 in my home state of Tasmania. At the conclusion of the BFS, the efforts of CETCH in creating the Huonville kiosk will have been replicated 2,000 times over, in towns and cities across the country. They are being rolled out in community centres and neighbourhood houses, RSL clubs, retirement villages and various other venues.
While the BFS initiative is an important one for Australian seniors, especially in remote communities, it is clear—at least to those on this side of the chamber—that the best way to give seniors access to decent broadband is to roll out the NBN. Unfortunately, it seems the federal opposition will never understand the importance of broadband to seniors, to remote communities or to a social inclusion agenda, because they continue to oppose the NBN and offer a second-rate broadband policy in its place.
I look forward to a time when residents of the Huon Valley and other remote communities can—rather than having to walk down to their local community centre or RSL club and access a computer with a 1.5 megabit per second connection—actually access through their own home a 100 megabit per second optic fibre connection or 12 megabit per second wireless connection. We will deliver this, despite the coalition’s attempts to ‘demolish’ the NBN. And when people of all ages across Australia are benefiting from this project—at home, in cafes and in schools and hospitals—history will judge the coalition harshly for their opposition to this nation-building project.