Understanding digital inequality

An analysis of unequal connectivity in Carlton Housing Estate, Melbourne, Victoria

This project was funded by a Melbourne Social Equity Institute 2020 Seed Funding Grant and by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN).


Australia has some of the best internet coverage globally, and yet in 2018 approximately 2.5 million Australians had no internet connection. This reveals significant limitations in access, digital ability, and affordability, despite major infrastructure investments (ACCAN, 2021).

While recent research suggests that these numbers have dropped due to the online demands that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic (ACMA, 2021), access, affordability, and adequacy of connection for some citizens remain out of reach due to a range of barriers. To ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to use digital technologies, and thus to ensure access to social and economic opportunities and essential government services, targeted investments to reduce digital inequality are necessary.

Digital inclusion in Australia is influenced by a person’s income, age, education level, and residential location. This report demonstrates that digital inequality is not measured by access to internet alone, but also by quality of service and internet providers’ accountability in the face of poor customer experience. Focus on the National Broadband Network (NBN) in Australia has led policymakers to overlook the many people who access the internet predominantly with their smartphones or who rely on their smartphones to augment poor home internet connections. The roll out of the NBN has led many to assume that high quality internet has been brought into everyone’s reach. This assumption means that the consequences of poor connectivity risk becoming less visible, and exacerbates concerns for the people who continue to experience digital exclusion.

Working with principles of co-design with community partners and Carlton public housing residents, we conducted a case study of how people manage digital inequality. Our data analysis revealed that people were not as digitally connected during the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns as the services upon which they depended assumed they were. Online home-schooling demanded a 1:1 device to person ratio and many low-income families needed to buy or request assistance to meet this demand. Additional constraints were felt in access to employment, and in essential services such as health and income support (Centrelink).

Understanding digital inequality: an analysis of unequal connectivity in Carlton housing estate, Melbourne, Victoria. Background image - illustration depicting tall block of flats.

Project Report

Understanding Digital Inequality: An Analysis of Unequal Connectivity in Carlton Housing Estate, Melbourne, Victoria

Download the 44-page report including the Executive Summary and recommendations.

Download: Download the Understanding Digital Inequality Report (PDF)

Research Snapshot

A two-page summary of the Understanding Digital Inequality research report is available in six languages.

Grid showing the first page of the research snapshot in six different langagues

Research Team

University-based researchers

Dr Nicky Dulfer, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Catherine Smith, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Dr Ellen van Holstein, School of School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences / RMIT

Dr Alice Garner, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Lia Acosta Rueda,  School of Social and Political Sciences

Lloyd Rouse, School of Social and Political Sciences

Sabah Hamed, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Kerrii Cavanagh, Community Projects Officer, Strategy and Culture

Associate Professor Leah Ruppanner, School of Social and Political Sciences

Dr Marc Cheong, School of Computer and Information Systems

External collaborators

Fiona Darling, City of Melbourne

Fiona Addison, City of Melbourne

Louise Caddell, City of Melbourne

Natasha Savic, Yarra Libraries and Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance

Elle Morrell, Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre

Sarah Deasey, Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre

Khadra Omar, MyPlace

Sally Beattie, MyPlace

Bich-Hoa Ha, cohealth

Sahil Puri,  Unilodge


Van Holstein, E., Dulfer, N., Smith, C., Garner, A. (2023). The alternate infrastructures of digital inclusion in counter cities: digital inequality in an Australian public housing estate. Cities. 137, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2023.104328 (open access)


For information about this project, please contact:

Dr Nicky Dulfer
Social Transformations and Education Research 
Melbourne Graduate School of Education
Phone +61 3 8344 8677
Email: dulfern@unimelb.edu.au

Banner and report cover image: Tom Carment, Carlton Flats, 2016, oil on linen 24x19.5cm, reproduced with permission of the artist.