Broadband up, television down, and hopes for a decreasing digital divide. Those are some of the pictures that can be gleaned from the ACMA Communications Report, released yesterday.

It’s hard to know where to start with the bevy of interesting statistics. The report got less than a once-over in this mornings newspapers with reports faithfully copying the ACMA media release line that there are now more mobile phones than people in Australia, but beyond this there are squillions of other useful and interesting statistics on where we are at, and where we might be going.

How’s this for starters? The average Australian now spends 22.1 minutes online every day, logs on 6.5 times a week and views 41 pages a session.

Not surprisingly, Australians are therefore spending less time watching television – although it remains, for the moment, the dominant medium. In 2001, the average punter watched 163 minutes of television a day. In 2006, it was just 144 minutes.

But the average figures tell less than half the story, which is one of a fast move to the internet. Some Australians – 16.8 per cent – have never used the internet at all. Take them out of the average figures, and the trends become clearer. Heavy users – who log on more than eight times a week – make up 35.4 per cent of the population.

Meanwhile almost 39 per cent of the population are watching either no television at all, or less two hours per day.

The longer term trends are even more alarming for free to air television. Among people aged 16-39, viewer numbers have declined by 17 per cent between 2001 and 2006.

The uptake of pay television offsets these trends, but while commercial free to air is still the dominant media in Australia, it is clear that its glory days are already well behind us and the future is – different.

Most Australians are now connected to the internet, and of those, 67 per cent have broadband. Broadband users spend longer on line. Of those households not yet connected to broadband, a third plan to connect in the next six months.

And what about social equity? The statistics show that high income households are more likely to use the internet, as might be expected, and suggest that income levels are a better determinant of internet use than geography.

But this may be changing fast. In 2006-2007, individuals with incomes less than $15,000 had a broadband take-up rate greater than individuals with incomes over $50,000 had in 2004-2005. ACMA is doing a major study with the Australian Bureau of Statistics that should tell us more soon.

And what are people using the internet for? E-mail is the killer application, followed by internet banking, “general browsing and surfing” and paying bills. Getting news comes next. Google is the most popular website, nor surprisingly since it is the front door to almost everything else. Wikipedia was another of the most popular sites, which is one in the eye for those who are sceptical of the importance of user-generated content.

Average figures fail to show the differences across demographics. The biggest users of the internet are 35-49 year olds, who clock up more than 50 hours in a quarter. The lightest users are 2-18 year olds, and internet users over 50 spend a long time online, but absorb material at a slower pace (perhaps because they read in a more “traditional” fashion.)

Some other scary stats for commercial television. Profitability in metropolitan markets was down 31.3 per cent in the 2005-2006 year. Meanwhile the cost of programs – including Australian drama and documentaries – is going up. The overall spend on advertising is going up, but free to air television’s share is declining, while that of radio is up slightly, and internet advertising is growing at an astonishing 61.5 per cent a year.

Social networking sites are growing fast, which suggests that they might be the killer application of the future for both communications and media consumption. I’ve written more on this elsewhere.

So there you have it – just one of a number of possible collections of edited highlights. Read the thing yourself for more.

What a pity all the information isn’t matched with a Rudd Government Communications policy for the times. But that is a whinge I have had before, and is best saved now for another day.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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