The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) is concerned that those on income support payments are missing out on fair access to telecommunications services, calling for the federal government to review the allowance provided under Centrelink for telecommunications services.
The Centrelink Telephone Allowance currently provides quarterly assistance for low-income consumers, however ACCAN, along with the South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS) and Financial Counselling Australia, have sent a letter to the Liberal Party, the Australian Labor Party, the Nationals, and the Australian Greens that said the allowance is not sufficient for a fair level of access to services such as the internet.
"In our digital age, telecommunications services are just as essential as water and energy," ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin said.
"Accessible, available, and affordable communications have the potential to increase the social, economic, and community participation of all Australians. It's vitally important that all consumers have access to communication services that are affordable so they can take advantage of government services, education, and employment opportunities."
In preparing its request for review, ACCAN and SACOSS commissioned a survey of 523 low-income, Centrelink beneficiaries which found many low income consumers are struggling to pay their telecommunications costs. 62 percent of respondents either experienced difficulty paying, had to cut back on usage, or stopped using one or more telecommunications services for financial reasons over the past year.
The survey also found that approximately half of respondents said they had difficulty paying their ongoing phone and internet bills.
SACOSS CEO Ross Womersley believes the research points to a growing divide in Australia between those who can afford to stay connected and those who cannot.
"It is clear that those who have the least ability to afford to get and to stay connected will miss out in all sorts of ways," he said.
"This research shows that not only must we urgently move to make this allowance fit for purpose and available to all those who really need it, we should also urgently enhance our income support payment system to ensure everyone has access to a basic level of income that enables them to get by.
"Given the growing expectations that we all operate in a world where it's essential to have access to a wide range of telecommunications we cannot afford to allow the divide to keep growing."
ACCAN's Corbin has previously highlighted the inadequacies in the reach of internet services, saying in September that while 98 percent of households with an income of AU$120,000 or more had internet access, only 57 percent of those with a combined income of less than AU$40,000 had access.
Pointing to a report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2014, Corbin said the government needs to provide equal access to its services not only through ease of use, but also across all communications channels.
"Technology allows us to complete many tasks from the comfort of our homes, but questions regarding the affordability, accessibility, and availability of communications services need to be addressed so there is equitable access to essential government services and those from other organisations," she said at the time.
"Affordability, along with a range of other issues, is often cited as a main barrier to getting connected to the internet and may present issues for some consumers to access services.
"For low-income earners, seniors, and other groups, affordability is a barrier to accessing essential online services like Centrelink and Medicare."