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InternetNZ’s digital inclusion plan

Twenty organisations have put their weight behind InternetNZ’s call on the government for greater digital inclusion.

While the government has its own digital inclusion plan, the signatories want to push things further and faster.

InternetNZ says this is in part as a response to the Covid–19 pandemic which highlighted the Internet’s importance for work and entertainment. It also wants to prepare the nation for a future where the digital world is only going to become more important.

The action plan covers five areas:

Affordable connectivity

We’ve built networks that can deliver fast broadband to almost every home and business in New Zealand. That’s fine for people with secure jobs and a decent income.

Not everyone can afford a connection. If unemployment takes off a lot more people will be left without the money to connect.

This problem is harder than it looks. It goes beyond the telecommunications sector.

Telecommunications companies are private. They exist to make money for their shareholders.

Intense competition means margins are already slim. New Zealand’s open access network model keeps the sector efficient. There is little fat to trim anywhere.

The InternetNZ plan suggests subsidies to help poorer people connect. I’m not sure that’s the best approach, but it does fit with how we tackle these problems at the moment.

Devices for people who can’t afford them

This is another aspect of the same problem. Too many New Zealanders can’t afford computers, tablets or other internet connection devices.

There are all kinds of traps with schemes to get computers into the hands of poorer New Zealanders.

Expect to lobbying from equipment suppliers and other vested interests to get their technologies accepted as the standard. Their ideas may not be the best options.

Take Chromebooks. They are cheap to buy, but Chromebooks are limited in what they do compared with Windows or Apple computers. That’s fine if you only want people to connect online, but it’s not a good way to help people pick up the digital skills that the plan also calls for.

Moreover Chromebooks lock users into Google’s surveillance capitalism model. Do we want less well off New Zealanders to be bombarded by targeted advertising and YouTube misinformation campaigns?

Windows and Apple computers come with their own lock-in issue. Linux is an alternative, but the open source operating system can be daunting for experienced computer users. Is it fair to land this on less technical folk?

Support for the newly connected

This is relatively easy to implement. Something like it already happens at the digital hubs that are now being established in regional New Zealand. The plan says an option is to increase funding for organisations already active in the community.

Digital skills for displaced workers

While giving displaced workers digital skills sounds good, the idea has a long history and has not always succeeded in the past. Previous schemes to retrain workers for a digital future, here and overseas, have churned out people that employers don’t need or want. This idea needs more work.

Long term internet resilience

The plan says: “Shovel ready investment in our telecommunications infrastructure, to provide future resilience and create employment.”

This can includeextending the fibre network deeper into rural New Zealand and coming up with better projects for more remote users.

We also need more redundancy in networks. Last month Vodafone’s network was disrupted by a couple of fibre cuts, it could be wise to build alternative routes so the network can self-heal when this happens.

Involve everyone

InternetNZ says in the introduction to the digital inclusion plan: “As a country, we especially need to focus on groups in society that need different kinds of support, including Māori, Pasifika, older people, people with disabilities, those on lower incomes, rural users and the homeless.”

This is vital. The pandemic is going to hit all these groups especially hard. It’s easy for comfortable, middle class New Zealanders in leafy suburbs with great broadband to lose sight of this. Spread out the telecommunications wealth and everyone benefits.