'Universal internet access should be provided as a public utility': Anthea Ong on S'pore's digital divide

It's difficult to do your homework on a smartphone as opposed to on a computer.

Jane Zhang | May 26, 2020, 09:39 PM

Even as Singapore becomes more digitally-connected, there is still a large digital divide between more vulnerable populations — the "digital outcasts — and the rest, said Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong in Parliament on Tuesday (May 26).

This came after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat spoke in his Fortitude Budget speech about the importance of digital transformation and inclusion for both businesses and individuals.

During her Adjournment Motion, Ong raised several structural issues that perpetuate the digital divide in the country, and gave several proposals for how these issues could be addressed.

Depth of the disparity in digital access

According to the Household Expenditure Survey (HES) 2017/2018, 81 per cent of resident households have a personal computer, and only 87 per cent have internet access.

"At least 1 in 10 households in Singapore are not plugged into our digital world," noted Ong.

Ong highlighted the difference in access to personal computers and internet amongst households in Singapore.

Out of households living in 1- and 2- room HDB flats, 45 per cent have access to the internet. This is in contrast to 96 per cent of households living in private condos and other apartments.

Similarly, the divide between 1- and 2- room HDBs, and private condos and other apartments, also exists when looking at the proportion of households that have a personal computer; 31 per cent living in the former do, while 95 per cent living in private condos and other apartments do.

Calling it a "bleak picture", Ong stated that a number of community groups that work with low-income households, differently-abled individuals, and seniors have shared stories from the ground of the struggles with digital literacy and skills that these groups face.

Iswaran: Progress made, but more to be done

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran, however, disagreed with Ong's description of the situation as bleak.

Responding to Ong, he noted that IMDA's annual Infocomm Usage survey in 2019 found that 89 per cent of all households own computers, and that 98 per cent of households have access to broadband internet.

"The situation, I believe — and I beg to differ with the member — is not as bleak as NMP Anthea Ong painted out to be. I think we have made progress, but at the same time, we must have the humility to acknowledge that there is more than we can do."

He added that while he appreciated the spirit in which the ideas were put forward, progress has already been made due to work done by the government in partnership with corporations and community groups.

Heng Swee Keat: Digital technology strengthens social resilience

In his Budget speech, Heng highlighted the importance of digital technology as an important way for us to strengthen social resilience.

"Regardless of age or resources, all members of our society should have access to digital resources, with no one left behind," he said.

The government will help specific groups — students and seniors — to stay digitally included.

Heng also highlighted that, during the home-based learning period, MOE had loaned over 22,000 computing devices and internet dongles to support students from lower-income families who might not have digital access at home.

However, Ong said that community organisation 6th Sense had shared that there were families who were too scared to bring the loaned devices home, as they would not be able to afford to pay the schools if the devices got lost or broken.

Structural issues that perpetuate the divide

Ong raised two specific structural issues that she feels perpetuate the digital divide:

  • Gaps in government intervention.
  • Metrics that don't show the actual situation.

She said that internet connectivity and personal computers are often too expensive for low-income households to afford, despite being considered necessities in this day and age, which in turn perpetuates further inequality.

Ong noted that the government has attempted to provide support to address this issue, such as with the NEU-PC Plus Scheme which was introduced in 2006.

The scheme offers low-income households with students or people with disabilities (PWD) the opportunity to purchase a new computer at an affordable price, bundled with with three years of free broadband internet.

However, Ong pointed to several shortcomings of the scheme, such as each eligible household only being permitted one laptop, regardless of the size of household (up until last month with Home-Based Learning), and the fact that it excludes pre-school, home-schooled and university students.

Inaccurate metrics

Ong added that the current statistical metrics and KPIs don't accurately capture whether each citizen actually has access to the internet according to what they need.

She pointed to how personal computers are conflated with other digital devices, such as tablets, but the two are different. Said Ong:

"Personal computers, including laptops, are the engines of creativity and productivity. Tablets and smartphones are not enough for work and learning.

A child who has to type out an essay on a smartphone or a tablet is not on the same footing as a child with a laptop.

This was echoed by Nominated Member of Parliament Lim Sun Sun, who said: "We cannot expect our students from low-income households to simply get by or make do with mobile phones for online learning."

The current statistics also do not measure under-connectivity, such as poor internet connection, nor does it take into account whether large households with access to a personal computer or tablet have sufficient online access.

"If our metrics do not highlight these fault lines, we remain blissfully misinformed of reality and true digital inclusion will continue to elude us," said Ong.

Next steps toward digital inclusion

Ong voiced her support for the Ministry of Communications and Information's (MCI) Digital Readiness Blueprint, which aims for all Singaporeans to be digitally ready, no matter their income or current IT abilities.

However, she offered a few suggestions to enhance the existing schemes and possible structural changes.

For instance, the NEU-PC Plus Scheme could be broadened to benefit all children despite their educational background, as well as adults from low-income families.

The application process could also be streamlined to allow beneficiaries of other financial assistance schemes like ComCare to automatically qualify.

Digital access should be regarded as a public utility

Ong also suggested adopting a Digital Adequacy Framework that is geared towards supporting learning, work, and social connections, and called for universal internet access as a public utility.

"Within this Framework, universal internet access should be provided as a public utility especially for low income households," she said.

Lim also proposed that internet access should be considered a public utility, like electricity and water.

She pointed out that Singapore's [email protected] programme already provides free Internet access in many public spaces, so extending that to free home Wi-Fi to residential areas "will not involve more than a concerted coordination with telcos outfitting every home with modems and wireless routers."

Citizen's Workgroup

Ong concluded by proposing that a Citizen's Workgroup, including community groups, could be established to complement the already-existing Digital Readiness Workgroup.

Ong also pointed out that Covid-19 has "spotlighted our deep digital divide and the 'digital outcasts' in our midst" and said:

"Covid-19 has thrust Singapore into the digital future. We must not leave any citizen in the past."

Top photo via Parliament and UX Indonesia on Unsplash.