The slow roll out of the National Broadband Network is contributing an ongoing digital literacy deficit across Australia, especially in telehealth, according to speakers at the Connected Australia event in Sydney.
“There's a lot of up-skilling to do, in particular at the home end or recipient end of healthcare. There's a notion of build it and they will come: If you don't have the NBN, you won't generate the digital literacy to maximise the use of it. So it's a little like chicken and egg,” said Professor Colin Carati, associate head of ICT at Flinders University.
Roy Monaghan, national telehealth delivery officer at the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), agreed, saying the lack of reliable broadband in remote and rural Australia has contributed to a digital divide.
“It's like having a bike: you don't really learn what the bike can do until you get on it. You may make a few mistakes, but essentially you have a vehicle that can take you faster than you can with your legs. If people don't have the ability to jump onto a system and make those mistakes, adjust and learn on how to do things a bit better, we are not going to go places.”
Carati pointed to issues around the NBN rollout schedule not going according to plan, saying it has made the process of providing adequate teleheatlh services difficult.
A NACCHO survey showed that only 30 of about 100 members were actually engaging in telehealth services, with the lack of an effective Internet connection being the main reason why many weren't engaging in telehealth, said Monaghan.
He added that the new government's fibre-to-the-node broadband policy is “an incomplete solution”, but it could offer some flexibility in being able to make changes to the network as technology continues evolves over time.
“It could be that wireless technology does evolve and you may be able to [leverage] it at these nodes, and maybe there will be a Wi-Fi tower that can shoot out the information at a very high speed.”
A telehealth project that Carati is working on in South Australia is providing people at home with particular health conditions to have their health status monitored remotely on a regular basis through an iPad app and through video conferencing.
He said he was able to provide this without the need for a large amount of bandwidth; less than 1Mbps per video conference. However, he said he is still limited in the quality of service he can provide due to poor reliability of Internet.
“There are occasions, especially when you are using non NBN related technologies, where you are getting poor quality and reliability of service, primarily though the contention of those technologies where you are getting too many people trying to jump on the bandwidth.
“The NBN will improve access, especially pushing out to the home and the bandwidth demands are likely to increase.”