What is digital inclusion?

Digital inclusion is one of the most important challenges facing Australia

What is digital inclusion?

Connected digital technologies have changed the way we live, learn, and work.

Measures taken during 2020 to 2021 to control the spread of COVID-19 affirmed the critical role that digital services play in underpinning social, economic, and civic life. In such a context, being able to access, afford, and effectively use digital technologies had never been more important to participating fully in society.

While digital transformation is generating social, cultural, and economic benefits for many Australians, these benefits are not shared equally. The premise of digital inclusion is that everyone should be able to make full use of digital technologies and the benefits they bring, while avoiding their potential negative consequences.

As the internet became critical communications infrastructure in the 1990s and 2000s, access to a connection was considered the primary driver for digital inclusion. Those without a household connection, or with limited access in other ways, were seen as falling on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide’[1]. However, connection alone is not enough to ensure digital inclusion[2]. People also need the skills and knowledge to use the internet and digital technologies effectively. The disparity between those with and without these skills has been described by researchers as a ‘second level’ digital divide[3].

A further barrier arises from the costs associated with being online – not only for data, but also for the necessary devices[4]. 

There are still some groups in the community that have very limited or no access to the internet, and therefore little chance to acquire basic digital skills. However, as both connections and digital skills have gradually improved across the population, with 93% of Australians now having a home internet connection[5], researchers and policy makers have become increasingly concerned with what some have called a ‘third level’ digital divide. This refers to the ways that offline social and economic advantages and disadvantages are reflected and compounded through different levels of access and use of digital technologies[6].

For these reasons, it remains important to track the social and geographic distribution of digital inclusion across the Australian population. Participation in an increasingly digital economy and society requires a combination of technical and financial resources and specific skills and knowledge. To understand the distribution of digital inequalities across the country, the Australian Digital Inclusion Index brings together measures of our access to the internet and digital technologies, our capacity to pay for these things, and our ability to use digital technologies skilfully.

Younger woman working on a laptop outside
Mother and son home schooling in front of computer

Degrees of inclusion and exclusion

In the same way that we identify a poverty line that reflects the ability of individuals and households to attain a minimum acceptable standard of living, we can identify a critical threshold for digital inclusion. This is the point above which a person’s level of access, ability, and capacity to pay for digital technologies enables them to effectively use digital services and participate in contemporary digital economic, civic, and social life.

Some organisations and researchers describe those without this level of inclusion as experiencing ‘digital poverty’: an inability to afford the cost of online connection and digital devices, presenting major barriers to education, work, and vital services, and compounding existing inequalities[7]. This kind of scarcity may arise where a person is unable to use the internet at home or where opportunities to use the internet are severely limited by inadequate access to data or a suitable device. These challenges are often associated with a lack of digital skills and literacy, compounding barriers to social and economic participation and leading to what some researchers have called an ‘inequality loop’[8].

In the Index, we identify a wide range of skills, resources, and capacities across the population and across different dimensions of digital inclusion. Based on this, we can describe those people with a very low overall score as ‘highly excluded’, and those with a very high score as ‘highly included’. Highly excluded Australians may be unable to access nor afford a reliable internet connection and associated digital devices, nor use them effectively to further their participation in social, economic, and civic life. Unfortunately, it is often people who would benefit from the inclusive use of the internet – to connect with others, engage in education and learning, or find and obtain work – who are highly excluded from digital participation[9]. Given the persistence of digital exclusion in Australian society and its link to existing social and economic inequalities, tackling both in tandem is critical to creating a more inclusive digital society.

Thresholds are as follows:

ADII Score ranges
Highly excluded
45 or below
Above 45 and below 61
61 and below 80
Highly included
80 and above


[1] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Understanding the Digital Divide”, OECD Digital Economy Papers, No. 49, OECD Publishing 2001, https://doi.org/10.1787/236405667766

[2] The United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, The Age of Digital Interdependence: Report of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, 2019. Accessed August 6, 2021. https://www.un.org/en/pdfs/DigitalCooperation-report-for%20web.pdf

[3] E Hargittai, “Second-Level Digital Divide: Differences in People’s Online Skills,” First Monday 7, no. 4 (2002). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v7i4.942

N Selwyn, “Reconsidering Political and Popular Understandings of the Digital Divide,” New Media & Society 6, no. 3 (2004): 341–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444804042519

L D Stanley, “Beyond Access: Psychosocial Barriers to Computer Literacy Special Issue: ICTs and Community Networking,” The Information Society 19, no. 5 (2003): 407–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/715720560

J A G M van Dijk, “Digital Divide Research, Achievements and Shortcomings,” Poetics 34, no. 4-5 (2006): 221–35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2006.05.004

M Warschauer, “Reconceptualising the Digital Divide,” First Monday 7, no. 7 (2002). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v7i7.967

[4] G Ogle, and R Law, Connectivity Costs II: Telecommunications Affordability and Waged Poor Households: Survey Final Report, 2020. Sydney: Australian Communications Consumer Action Network. Accessed August 6, 2021. https://accan.org.au/Telecommunications%20Affordability%20and%20Waged%20Poor%20Report.pdf

S Wise, Trying to connect: Telecommunications access and affordability among people experiencing financial hardship, 2013. Accessed August 6, 2021. https://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2013-09/apo-nid35820.pdf

[5] Australian Communications and Media Authority “How We Use the Internet: Executive Summary and Key Findings”, Communications and Media in Australia, Australian Communications and Media Authority, December 2022, https://www.acma.gov.au/sites/default/files/2023-03/HOWWEU~1.PDF

[6] J A M Van Deursen, and E J Helsper “The Third-Level Digital Divide: Who Benefits Most from Being Online?,” Communication and Information Technologies Annual 10, (2015): 29–52. https://doi.org/10.1108/S2050-206020150000010002.

[7] K Allmann, “UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review 2022”, 2022. Ascot, UK: Digital Poverty Alliance. Accessed April 18, 2023. https://digitalpovertyalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/UK-Digital-Poverty-Evidence-Review-2022-v1.0-compressed.pdf.

[8] M Ragnedda, M L Ruiu, and F Addeo “The self-reinforcing effect of digital and social exclusion: The inequality loop,” Telematics and Informatics 72, (2022). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2022.101852

[9] M Ragnedda, M L Ruiu, and F Addeo “The self-reinforcing effect of digital and social exclusion: The inequality loop,” Telematics and Informatics 72, (2022). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2022.101852