The government has been urged to step in to address immediate affordability issues in relation to communications services and equipment to ensure that low income earners, the unemployed and other disadvantaged Australians are supported during the current health and economic crisis.
A coalition of more than 25 community sector organisations including the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) and the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) have written a letter to the Communications Minister Paul Fletcher seeking urgent action to ensure all Australians can stay connected and access essential services online, including schooling, telehealth and pandemic-related government communications.
ACCAN chief executive Teresa Corbin said the introduction of the Coronavirus supplement and the increase in support payments were welcome and timely, there was more to do as schools begin to close and start at-home education, and many families face increased financial pressure.
“The reality is that not everyone has access to a home broadband service or equipment like a laptop or tablet. We need to make sure that everyone in our community has the tools they need to succeed,” said Ms Corbin.
The group also wants government to create a free telephone support service for people with low digital literacy to get direct technical and skills support.
The letter to Mr Fletcher, the group called on government to fast-track a proposal for a wholesale broadband concessional product that would enable low-cost services to be delivered most efficiently to those that need it. They want Mr Fletcher to work with the NBN Co and Finance Minister Matthias Cormann to help press the project forward.
“There are many consumers on limited incomes in our community who will remain isolated and struggle in these circumstances due to barriers in accessing communications services and equipment, the most significant of which is affordability,” the group said in the letter to Mr Fletcher.
“This pre-existing problem is heightened now, creating serious concerns for service delivery agencies struggling to maintain contact with their clients, and imposing a serious strain on low income families confronted with increased demand for communications services and equipment as their children require online educational support while in confinement,” the letter said.
“While service providers are attempting to scale up telehealth and other virtual services, lack of access to hardware and data for some clients is a significant barrier to this approach.
“This is a particular concern for older people and people with disability who are reliant on the support of service delivery agencies.”
Other signatories to the letter include Anglicare Australia, Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance, The Benevolent Society, Choice, The Smith Family and Uniting Care.
The Coalition has also told Mr Fletcher it wants government support in ensuring that all customers – including pre-paid customers with expired credit – have ongoing data free access to government health information, my Gov and Centrelink websites, education platforms and services, and employment services. This was especially important for people with only pre-paid mobile services as a way of staying connected.
They also want measures put in place to prevent disconnections until the crisis is over. While acknowledging both Telstra and Optus had already put arrangements in place , the group wants an industry wide response.
They also seek moratoriums on late fees and penalties for all consumers, and on debt collection referrals and collections.