The Community Technology Centres Association represents a network of not-for-profit community organisations in small rural, regional and remote communities scattered throughout NSW. For our member organisations, and the communities that use them, the issue is making sure that rural citizens are able to “join the conversation”.
The “digital divide” is a cliche now, but for us it is a very real thing, and not one but multiple layers of divides. Community Technolgy Centes are still putting numerous rural citizens in communities with no adult education providers, through beginners computer courses – teaching them how to double click and use a keyboard.
At the next level are people who use office and accounting software but have not learned to safely use the internet. Many rural people are restricted to dial-up access at home, so they have never fully engaged with the internet. Anecdotal evidence from our communities indicates a lack of “street wise” skepticism. Sites purporting to be “government” sources of information are perceived as safe and credible, and rural communities need a great deal more access to community education programs around privacy and credibility issues with the internet before they can safely engage with government.
Maintaining a core of accessible technical support skills in each community is another key Web 2.0 access issue.
There is a severe skills shortage in many rural communities of IT technicians capable of setting up internet connections and firewalls etc, and resolving virus and other infections. Community Technology Centres are often the only local source of technical support and advice for the public and small business.
There is now a third “divide” in use of Web 2.0 technologies, which in many cases depend on fast broadband without latency. In most of the communities we serve, the only option foreseeable in the medium term is publicly accessible broadband. The NBN project will not deliver broadband into rural communities for some time. Rural communities must breach divides one and two, and then have public access to fast broadband, before they can begin to participate. Leaving them out is a major equity issue, particularly as government moves more and more into delivery of community consultation through Web 2.0.
Community Technology Centres are the access centres that can facilitate rural communities engaging with new communication tools. The can enable rural citizens to connect with federal and state government online content and policy, and override the barriers that distance puts in the way of conversations. They can help close the several layers of divide between the digital haves and have nots.
CTCs are currently being supported by local advocates and volunteers within their communities. They need technology refreshing and significant federal funding to enable them to continue providing public access to broadband, and community education in how to engage with it, in order to support the Gov 2.0 initiatives. The alternative for government is to duplicate Web 2.0 channels in other mediums accessible by rural and regional communities, or risk disenfranchising rural communities.