$174 million to teach digital, broadband literacy an 'effective' investment
Tony Basto showing some of his newly acquired skills by taking a self-portrait at the at the launch of Riverstone Digital Hub and Riverstone Digital Enterprise program.
The federal government has allocated more than $170 million to boost digital literacy and internet adoption in Australia ahead of the national broadband network rollout.
The spending includes grants for community hubs and business education, as well as extra funding through the Medicare Rebate scheme to encourage doctors to use video conferencing. These programs - some decided just two weeks before the election was called - have also helped Labor politicians make good-news announcements through the campaign.
The money has gone towards programs such as the Digital Enterprise program, Digital Local Government, Digital Careers, Digital Communities and Broadband for Seniors.
Three government departments have pledged about $174 million since the last election, according to calculations by Fairfax Media. The money is part of the federal budget and does not impact on the cost of building the NBN.
The Department of Health and Ageing has spent $49.8 million since July 2011 on rebates for video-link consultations, a spokeswoman confirmed this week.
The figure includes generous incentive schemes that started in July 2011 and have encouraged nearly 12 per cent of Australian doctors to get their practices ready for telehealth sessions. Between July 2011 and July 2012 the government offered a $6000 bonus to doctors for their first telehealth session, as well as an extra $60 for each additional telehealth consultation.
The incentive has dropped to $1300 per doctor, only claimable if the patient is at least 15 kilometers away,
with a second installment of $2600 once ten telehealth sessions are completed. But doctors can still get incentives of $39 per telehealth session until the end of this financial year. Patients can collect an extra rebate if they attend a video consultation, or ask for the extra rebate to cover their gap payment.
Independent telecommunications analyst, Paul Budde, said he fully supported programs that spread digital literacy because many Australians only had a superficial knowledge of the internet and were at risk of becoming ''second class citizens''. Digital literacy often declined once people left school or university, he added.
''Other countries have similar programs, but what is interesting in the Australian situation is that we are doing it in tandem with the NBN rollout,'' he said.
''I think that digital literacy is, worldwide, seen as something to overcome poverty, violence and hunger. But if you are in Rwanda, you obviously have a different program than in Australia.''
The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has been responsible for grants to grassroots organisations. This includes programs such as Digital Enterprise, which provides money for small enterprises and not-for-profit groups to explore how the internet can ''improve the efficiency and reach of their operations''.
This program received $12.4 million over three years in 2011, and then an additional $7.2 million in the 2013-14 budget. Together with some additional funding transferred from the Local Government program, Digital Enterprises has received $20.3 million.
Funding varies from about $300,000 for council and regional business groups up to more than $1 million for state-wide organisations like the NSW Business Chamber.
The latest round of funding for Digital Enterprise grants was approved a week before the Prime Minister called the election, allowing Labor politicians to announce targeted local programs while visiting electorates.
Similarly, funding for Digital Business Kits was decided in late July, but grants have been announced during the election. So far about $3 million out of $5 million has been handed out to industry peak bodies in $500,000 lots, including to the Australian Services Roundtable, Restaurant and Catering Australia, the Australian Council of Social Services, AiGroup, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, and Early Childhood Australia. Four grants were yet to be announced.
The Digital Communities program was announced in November 2011 with a funding pool of $23 million, of which $13.6 million has gone to Digital Hubs. So far 40 hubs have been built around the country in areas with NBN connections. These hubs are designed to increase the number of Australian households online. They offer free digital literacy classes, such as using Facebook, Twitter and Pintrest, staying in touch through email and Skype, creating online photo albums, online shopping and banking, researching family history and online safety.
The Broadband for Seniors program, funded by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs since 2008, has allocated $25.4 million over seven years with corporate partner NEC Australia. It targets Australians aged over 50 – a social group that was identified as ''disproportionately digitally disengaged''.
NEC has supplied 2000 internet kiosks in places where seniors congregate, such as golf clubs, libraries, nursing homes, community centres and council offices.
Secretary at Melbourne's Celtic Club, Peter Gavin, said its internet kiosk had been ''extremely effective''.
''We advertised it to our older members and we were filled up every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoon teaching them how to use the internet and email,'' he said.
Many of the clubs oldest members, aged over 70, now received the club's weekly newsletter by email rather than the three-monthly paper newsletter, he added.
About $22.8 million has been allocated to the Digital Local Government initivative designed to help governments and councils develop online services. However, $2.8 million has since been re-allocated to a project to get museums online and to the Digital Enterprise initiative.
So far 32 local governments in early NBN rollout sites have collectively received $12 million. The government has opened up the program to a further 44 local councils for a maximum of $375,000 each, but only $7.9 million in funding remains available.
But while these programs continue, NBN Co has taken off the road a display truck that demonstrates the applications available over a fibre-to-the-home connection. A spokesman said NBN Co wanted to avoid using ''Commonwealth resources in a manner to advantage a particular party'' during the caretaker period.