For remote Aboriginal families, limited telephone and internet services make life difficult. Here’s what they told us

By Jessa Rogers, First Nations Senior Research Fellow, Queensland University of Technology

Author provided

It is well understood that the digital divide disproportionately affects people living in regional Australian communities. Remote Aboriginal communities in particular are among the most digitally excludedbut there is little research looking at how these families experience digital integration.

Our research project, Connecting in the Gulf, shares stories directly from Aboriginal families living on Mornington Island, off the coast of Queensland in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Our full report published online.

In collaboration with the community, we developed a research method called “show and yarn” where families showed us their devices and told us about their experiences with digital inclusion.

Yarn is an indigenous way of sharing knowledge. It was an important aspect of our work, as better outcomes are achieved when Indigenous people have a say in the design and delivery of policies, programs and services that affects them.

How do families who live at a distance connect?

Residents of Mornington Island have poor quality mobile and broadband services and few options. The island's only mobile network, Telstra 4G, is concentrated in the town of Gununa and is prone to congestion and interruptions.

The other main digital services are:

  • a free community wifi spot in Gununa with a radius of 100 meters
  • a few solar-powered and satellite-enabled outstation telephones located throughout the island
  • the ability to purchase NBN satellite plans from certain providers.… 1200w,… 1800w,… 754w,… 1508w,… 2262w” sizes=”(min-width: 1466px) 754px, (max-width: 599px) 100vw, (min-width: 600px) 600px, 237px”>
A cyclone-proof, solar-powered dispatch telephone about 20 km from the town of Gununa.

The island, which has about 1,200 inhabitants, will get a major upgrade during the island Regional Affiliate Program sometime soon, but the families were unaware of when this would happen.

Read more:
Digitizing social services could further exclude people who are already on the margins

Expand a culture of sharing

The families we spoke to told us that they almost exclusively use their mobile phones to make calls and access the internet.

In many cases, devices are shared between several family members and data is shared via hotspotting when someone runs out. This reflects a wider culture of sharing, but can also be a source of conflict.

As one group member told us:

I hear a lot of people […] On Facebook, my mom talks about the hotspot thing, they are tired of the hotspot thing […] I have no data because we have to have a hotspot for them […] If someone wants to use the internet to make a bank transfer, they come up and ask.

Although families can buy contract-based satellite internet connections, they spoke of bad past experiences and a fear of being locked into contracts. They expressed that they would rather rely on prepaid credit than risk going into debt.

The interviewees also preferred to use data in their own homes despite the free Wi-Fi location in the community, reflecting a family-oriented way of being.… 1200w,… 1800w,… 754w,… 1508w,… 2262w” sizes=”(min-width: 1466px) 754px, (max-width: 599px) 100vw, (min-width: 600px) 600px, 237px”>
Residents of Mornington Island showed us their devices and talked about how they experienced digital inclusion.

Digital competence is a challenge and an opportunity

The families spoke of a gap between young people who quickly learn to use technology and older people who are not as savvy online. We heard stories of young people pestering family members for passwords and online hotspots and then using and/or sharing these with other people without permission.

As one person explained:

Some family members feel like you're taking advantage of them sometimes, when they feel like, “Oh, I should share.” And it's the same way with the bank, with the money. They would feel obligated to share.

They also described how limited and unreliable cell phone reception and coverage affected cultural activities.

The telephone reception, for example, stops just outside town and does not cover most of the island's land and sea. Sick and elderly people with safety concerns are afraid to leave the township for activities out in the Country.

One elder suggested that more young people would go out for cultural activities if postings had better telephone and internet coverage:

I think it will make them happy and have that pride to be out on their own ground […] Whether it's a newborn turtle, or crab, fish, and they show it off and it will give them that pride and happiness […] “This is what I caught” – and they will show more than one family (on Facebook).… 1200w,… 1800w,… 754w,… 1508w,… 2262w” sizes=”(min-width: 1466px) 754px, (max-width: 599px) 100vw, (min-width: 600px) 600px, 237px”>
Some families had access to tablets and game consoles, which were mostly used by hotspotting prepaid mobile data.

What is being done about the digital divide?

In January, the federal government established a First Nations Advisory group for digital integration to accelerate progress towards Closing the Gap goals. A Digital Inclusion Plan for Indigenous Peoples is also being developed, with contributions from key stakeholders. Both of these developments are promising.

Increasing infrastructure in remote Aboriginal communities is not conducive to profit, given the small number of residents. Nevertheless, it is important to ensure that these families feel safe, that they can continue with cultural practices and access the many employment, health and education benefits of being online.

Above all, we must listen to the voices of indigenous peoples and work with these communities to improve the speed, reliability and access to services. Organizations such as InDigiMOB working hard to achieve this.

Read more:
Digital inequality: why can I enter your building – but your website shows me the door?

The conversation

Jessa Rogers receives funding from the Australian Research Council as a DECRA Fellow. The Connecting in the Gulf project is funded by QUT's IGNITE Grant Scheme and the AuDA Foundation.

Amber Marshall has previously received funding for related research from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) and the Queensland Government.

Kim Osman and Thu Dinh Xuan Pham do not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Originally published in The conversation.

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