Case study: Mapping the Digital Gap – digital inclusion in remote First Nations communities

Djarindjin and Lombadina at sunset

Digital inclusion outcomes and access to services are critically important to ensuring informed decision-making and agency among Australia’s First Nations peoples. However, there is a gap between the digital inclusion of First Nations Australians and other Australians. Recognition of this has led to the establishment of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap Outcome 17 – that ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have access to information and services enabling participation in informed decision-making regarding their own lives’[1]. People living in Australia’s 1,100 remote First Nations communities are among the most digitally excluded Australians. Apart from two ADII case studies undertaken in 2018 (Ali Curung, NT) and 2019 (Pormpuraaw, Queensland), there has been limited data to measure the scale and nature of this digital gap[2]. The 2021 ADII national sample was not sufficient to generate a score for First Nations populations, and therefore a separate approach was required to measure and respond to digital exclusion in remote communities.

About Mapping the Digital Gap

The Mapping the Digital Gap project is the first comprehensive study of remote First Nations communities’ participation in, and access to, the digital economy. It is a supplementary ADII project run in partnership with Telstra, and forms part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society research program. The project objectives are to:

  1. Generate a detailed account of the distribution of digital inclusion and the uses of digital services, including news and media, across ten remote First Nations communities.
  2. Track changes in measures of digital inclusion for these communities over time.
  3. Inform local strategies to improve digital inclusion capabilities and services and enable informed decision-making.

The project methodology follows NHMRC and AIATSIS guidelines for ethical research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities, with input from a First Nations Expert Advisory group[3]. This collaborative approach includes partnering with First Nations organisations and working with community co-researchers in each community to conduct qualitative research including annual face to face surveys. Detailed outcomes are provided back to each community in the spirit of Indigenous Data Sovereignty.

What does the Digital Gap look like in 2023?

The digital gap between First Nations and other Australians nationally is 7.5. However, the scale of the gap increases significantly with remoteness (see Table 1).

Table 1: 2023 ADII scores and dimensions by remoteness and First Nations status

Remoteness category 2023 Index score (gap) 2023 Access score (gap) 2023 Affordability score (gap) 2023 Digital Ability score (gap)
Major cities of Australia*
Non-First Nations
First Nations
Relative Gap (National Gap)^
3.1 (1.8)
4.2 (3.0)
6.3 (6.1)
-2.7 (-4.6)
Outer Regional Australia*
Non-First Nations
First Nations
Relative Gap (National Gap)^
5.3 (12.0)
-4.2 (1.7)
9.3 (10.1)
6.7 (16.7)
Remote Australia
Non-First Nations
First Nations
Relative Gap (National Gap)^
21.6 (24.4)
33.3 (37.6)
0.6 (0.4)
19.8 (22.7)
Very Remote Australia
Non-First Nations
First Nations
Relative Gap (National Gap)^
23.5 (25.3)
33.9 (38.1)
8.3 (6.4)
16.9 (18.9)
Non-First Nations
First Nations
National Gap

* Note: Inner Regional results have been excluded due to low samples. No special First Nations collection was undertaken for urban and regional areas this year and results obtained based on national sampling methods of First Nations people should be treated with caution due to very small sample sizes.

^ Relative Gaps show the gap between First Nations and non-First Nations people living within the same remoteness category. National Gaps show the gap between first nations people living within a remoteness category, and the national average for non-First Nations people.

First Nations people living in remote and very remote communities have overall ADII scores of 49.0 and 48.0 respectively. This is a gap of 21.6 and 23.5 compared with other Australians in the same areas and an overall gap of 24.4 and 25.4 respectively against the national results. This substantial disparity demands dedicated attention to address its underlying causes.

The nature of the digital inclusion gap changes dramatically with remoteness, and is most pronounced for Access and Digital Ability. The scale of the Access gap in remote (37.5) and very remote (38.1) areas points to limited telecommunications infrastructure. Furthermore, in these areas, there is a high preference for pre-paid mobile services and limited take-up of postpaid home broadband services such as NBN’s Sky Muster satellite service. Unlike postpaid services, pre-paid services do not require credit checks and multiple forms of ID, and people are more in control of managing their mobile costs. However such plans cost more per gigabyte. While there is generally a high uptake of digital technologies among First Nations peoples, there is a gap in Digital Ability for remote (22.7) and very remote (18.9) peoples due to high levels of mobile-only use, lower levels of formal education, limited digital training or support, and English often being a second or third language. 

While the gap in Affordability appears relatively low, this result should be treated with caution. Affordability is calculated based on household income, and remote and very remote First Nations peoples have low individual incomes and large shared households – the median personal disposable income in remote communities is $292/week[4]. Furthermore, First Nations peoples in remote and very remote communities tend to access the internet via pre-paid mobile, and survey data shows that 53.3% of First Nations peoples ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ or ‘always’ sacrifice essentials such as food or bills to stay connected.

In the ten remote and very remote First Nations communities included in the Mapping the Digital Gap project, there is a wide variation in digital inclusion levels ranging from 39.0 in Gängan and Wadeye (Northern Territory), to 59.6 in Wilcannia (New South Wales), and 60.2 in Erub (Torres Strait Islands) (see table 2). Factors impacting digital inclusion levels include the size of the community, distance from regional centres, types of communications access, and the socio-economic, cultural, and linguistic context. The community sites on the First Nations dashboard on the ADII website, which includes digital inclusion scores and basic information about each community.

Table 2: 2023 ADII scores and dimensions for the ten remote First Nations communities in the Mapping the Digital Gap project

Community 2023 Index score 2023 Access score 2023 Affordability score* 2023 Digital Ability score
Djarindjin / Lombadina, WA
Erub, Torres Strait, QLD
Gängan, NT
Galiwin'ku, NT
Kalumburu, WA
Tennant Creek, NT
Wadeye, NT
Wilcannia, NSW
Wujal Wujal, QLD
Yuelamu, NT
Average score

* Note: Affordability scores are affected by the large size of households in remote communities which increases household income, thereby boosting Affordability scores despite low personal incomes.

More in-depth accounts of the communication and media services available and usage patterns and challenges for each of these ten communities are available in the Community Outcomes reports on the Mapping the Digital Gap webpage. These reports provide context around the range of factors impacting digital inclusion for each community, drawing on the surveys and qualitative research, with suggestions for local digital inclusion plans to address community-specific challenges. These case studies are intended to inform local strategies, and government and industry investment for other communities with similar characteristics.

Developments and challenges

Improving household and individual broadband access is a critical element in addressing the gap for remote and very remote First Nations peoples. However, this is complicated by limited backhaul infrastructure and competition in remote areas. While access to mobile and broadband services in remote areas has improved over the last decade, with more mobile coverage and the rollout of NBN’s Sky Muster satellite service, targeted funding programs are needed to provide reliable services in small outstations and homelands. The quality and reliability of mobile and broadband services were identified as an issue in the case study sites, with infrastructure upgrades required to manage increasing demand on the network[5].

Affordability is an ongoing issue, with over 90% of remote mobile users on pre-paid services, typically paying $2-$4 per gigabyte for data. Despite increasing data usage, there is little transition from pre-paid mobile to postpaid or fixed broadband services, which tend to have lower price points. With ongoing government transition to online government service delivery, free connectivity options through public Wi-Fi and hub facilities are needed to ensure community access to essential services. Affordability can also be addressed through aggregated or shared broadband services, such as Wi-Fi mesh networks, as well as more affordable mobile plans. Device costs are also a critical issue, with high turnover of mobile devices in remote communities.

While Digital Ability is relatively high among most young First Nations people, other cohorts have low usage or don’t access the internet at all, including elderly people, people with disability, people with low English literacy, and people without broadband access. Targeted and locally delivered programs, with local digital mentors, are needed to support engagement. Programs need to be engaging to increase digital literacy and the use of relevant tools and applications. Trust in the digital world also needs to be built, including awareness of scams and online safety concerns, and education on how people can protect themselves online.

Next steps

There is still much to do to ensure targets are met for Closing the Gap Target 17: ‘By 2026, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have equal levels of digital inclusion.’ A more detailed Mapping the Digital Gap annual report will be released in August 2023, providing results of quantitative and qualitative research across the 10 communities. The project will continue in 2023 and 2024, with individual community reports being updated annually.

While the Mapping the Digital Gap project is, for the first time, providing data for remote communities, more data is needed for urban and regional First Nations peoples to track digital inclusion progress. The ADII team is proposing an expanded version of Mapping the Digital Gap for regional and urban sites nationally.

The Mapping the Digital Gap research outcomes are informing policy development in relation to Closing the Gap Outcome 17, with members of the team represented on the First Nations Digital Inclusion Advisory Group and Expert Panel, established by Communications Minister Michelle Rowland MP. The team has also contributed to the development of the First Nations Digital Inclusion Plan and other policy and program reviews.

References and footnotes

[1] Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, ‘7B. Table B: Outcome 17 | Closing the Gap’, 17.

[2] Julian Thomas, Jo Barraket, Chris K. Wilson, Kay Cook, et al., ‘Measuring Australia’s Digital Divide: The Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2018’, Report (RMIT University, Centre for Social Impact, Telstra, 29 August 2018), Australia,

Julian Thomas, Jo Barraket, Chris K. Wilson, Ellie Rennie, et al., ‘Measuring Australia’s Digital Divide: The Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2019’, Report (RMIT University, Centre for Social Impact, Telstra, 17 September 2019), Australia,

Ellie Rennie, Julian Thomas, and Chris Wilson, ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People and Digital Inclusion: What Is the Evidence and Where Is It?’, Communication Research and Practice 5, no. 2 (3 April 2019): 105–20,

[3] Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, ed., AIATSIS Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research (Acton, ACT: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), 2020)

National Health and Medical Research Council, Ethical Conduct in Research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Communities: Guidelines for Researchers and Stakeholders (Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council, 2018),

[4] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, ‘Home Ownership and Housing Tenure’.

[5] Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee, ‘2021 Regional

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