Tackling Australia's digital inclusion problem with Start Broadband
Thirty years ago, deciding whether you would rather go a week without hot water or internet access seemed like a simple choice. Today, the question is much more complex. "It highlights how important the internet has become to work, play, and social connection," says Andrew Wheelan, Managing Director of Start Broadband. "Having access to the internet has become a necessity for so many reasons, from education or job search to government services."
Start Broadband launched in 2016 as a response to the widening gap in digital inclusion in Australia. "In a wealthy country like ours, there is no good reason why we should have nearly 2 million Australians offline, including some of our most vulnerable. We want to fix that."
In countries where the internet is heavily embedded in the social fabric, being disconnected can mean missing out on access to crucial services and exacerbating the cycle of poverty. "Unsurprisingly, a lack of internet connection correlates to lower income and rates of employment. Start exists to help level the playing field and connect the unconnected," says Andrew.
"Our core belief is that every family deserves access to a home internet connection. It is as important as switching on the lights or the heater."
How COVID widened the digital inclusion gap
Before the pandemic, the idea of multiple people in one household on video conference calls at opposite ends of the house was 'unthinkable,' according to Andrew.
"All of sudden technologies that had been around for years were thrust into mass adoption, and households needed an internet connection that could facilitate their use." Start not only provided connections for customers, but also offered solutions to amplify WiFi signal to reach all corners of their homes.
As the virus spread, industries shut with little support or information about when they would return. Many of Start's customers faced a loss of income and extreme financial difficulties. To support customers, Start implemented a COVID Hardship Policy for customers to seek relief from bills. "This relief was utilised by many of our customers, in particular those in the hospitality sector," says Andrew.
"We’re really proud to see that all of the businesses who sought support during this period are still trading and, in many cases, thriving today."
The issue of digital inclusion - or access to and the ability to use the internet - became visible almost overnight. A problem that Start Broadband had set out to solve suddenly appeared in mainstream media.
"We saw the waitlist for our Life Changing Connections Program, which offers free internet to families in need, swell significantly," says Andrew.
Even as demand stabilises, the Start team hopes to see calls for digital inclusion continue with the same urgency. "In our humble opinion, there is a need for this same level of focus in non-pandemic times. Connecting families experiencing hardship to the internet removes everyday barriers to accessing education and crucial services like MyGov, Centrelink, and Medicare."
Start Broadband's impact for communities
By using a share of every customer bill towards funding home internet for families experiencing hardship, Start Broadband is using its business as a force for social change.
"We want to empower customers to help solve the problem. By choosing Start for your internet and mobile, you can make a big difference just by using a product you would be using anyway," says Andrew.
To date, Start has provided nearly 30,000 days of free internet to families who would otherwise have gone without a connection.
While the flow-on effects of internet connection are difficult to quantify, they can be seen in the everyday lives of these families. "Think of the family who need to mobilise their kids to the local library to get access to online study. That's easier said than done while you're trying to work, prepare dinner, and get the kids ready for bed," says Andrew. "It stands to reason these families will not enjoy the same outcomes as their connected peers. The playing field is not level."
"Beyond that, the social inclusion of being online should not be overlooked. A big part of today’s world is online - although this needs to be balanced. For those who are not a part of it, the isolation is very real. It is important to be able to stay in touch with family, share a conversation about the latest Netflix series, or laugh at the funny meme of the day."
"Everyone deserves to be a part of that, as much as they want to be."
Start Broadband is also an active member of the Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance: a collection of organisations advocating for more digital inclusion by tackling challenges from affordability to access for people with a disability or older members of the community. The Alliance provides a collective voice to government and industry on the challenges and what is needed to become a truly connected society.