• There is a digital divide in Alice Springs (Getty )Source: Getty
Seven Aboriginal town camps in Alice Springs have no broadband internet access and another five don’t have a reliable connection, as experts warn Australia’s deep digital divide now poses a clear and urgent danger to the health of vulnerable people.
Else Kennedy

1 Apr 2020 - 12:43 PM  UPDATED 1 Sep 2020 - 1:33 PM

As Scott Morrison advised Indigenous people over the age of 50 to stay at home on Sunday, and coronavirus cases in the Northern Territory increased to 21, many town camp residents found themselves with few options for staying up to date with the latest news.

Louise Abbott, an elderly woman living at Abbott's camp, where there is no NBN connection, said she relies on a payphone around the corner from the camp to communicate with the outside world. But she said the payphone is "too far to walk" when she is feeling unwell.

People without access to the Internet also have limited access to "good, clear information about what's going on", and that could contribute to a "sense of public panic", said Matt Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University.

Teresa Corbin, CEO of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, is deeply concerned that families in these communities could be effectively isolated from critical health and education services if they have to self-isolate during the coronavirus crisis.

"The assumption is that everybody has a mobile, and secondly, that everybody has a mobile with credit and charge on it,” said Ms Corbin. “But that, of course, is not the case.”

Their concerns are echoed by James Ward, director of the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Queensland. He said communication via phone and internet would be crucial in "restrict(ing) the inflow of people to clinics where other people may be sitting with the virus."

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Delays to connectivity

Head of NBN local in South Australia and the Northern Territory, Tim Saul, said a lack of existing infrastructure, extra planning approvals, and time spent collaborating with local stakeholders has meant connections to the town camps have been delayed, even though the rest of the town has been connected to NBN.

Mr Saul said the company planned to connect six of the town camps without internet to fixed line broadband, and two town camps currently on satellite connections will be converted to fixed line broadband by June 30.

But the escalation of the coronavirus could delay connections to the camps said Mr Saul. 

Once completed, this will bring the total number of town camps connected to fixed line broadband in Alice Springs to 11 out of a total of 16 camps.

Mr Saul said NBN was looking at an interim solution for town camps where NBN was yet to complete the build due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

NBN Co has contacted the Northern Territory government to offer emergency internet and telecommunications services to communities without connectivity and is awaiting instructions, said Mr Saul.

Dish overburdened

Five town camps in Alice Springs currently rely on NBN via Skymuster, a satellite service that picks up a signal via a dish mounted on a roof. But the service isn't suitable for high numbers of users and often fails, said Jenny Macfarland from the Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service.

At Hidden Valley, a town camp just 1.5km from downtown Alice Springs, up to 400 residents share a single WiFi hotspot connected to the town camp community centre.

"Sometimes it does work; sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes you have to wait for the network to go back on. Sometimes it plays up," said Hidden Valley resident Noeline Macmillan.

Ms Macmillan’s experience is supported by Ellie Rennie, co-director of RMIT’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre, who said one satellite connection wouldn’t be able to cover more than three common family activities such as “online education, running a business, plus entertainment” at the same time.

“It's just simply not enough for a family,” said Ms Rennie.

“So if you're thinking about the number of people going through a town camp at certain times, a satellite connection probably won't cut it.”

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Additional research for this article, which is supported by the Michael Gordon fellowship, was supplied by Sabella Turner and Noelene McMillan.

This story is co-published by The Citizen, produced by the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne.