Widespread use of mobile applications has made Internet access so pervasive that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) will remove a longstanding question about Internet usage from the 2021 Census.

The decision to remove the question on Internet usage in households – which was removed as the bureau announced the composition of next year’s Census – was made after a public consultation that netted more than 450 submissions.

The bureau is continually soliciting guidance from data users and reviewing the questions it asks “being mindful of the burden on the population to complete the Census”, Australian statistician David Kalisch previously wrote in laying out plans for the 2021 Census.

The next Census – whose terms were laid out in legislation earlier this year – will be conducted on 10 August 2021.

“The ABS will ensure there is evidence and a demonstrated need to support new information being added to the Census,” Kalisch said.

New questions in 2021 – which will collect data about long-term health conditions, Australian Defence Force participation and non-binary sex – were chosen from a shortlist of eight possible topics that also included Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural identity; individuals’ journey to education; “more contemporary measures of household and family relationships”; sexual orientation; and smoking status.

Charting broadband’s course

Official tracking of Internet adoption goes back to the 1990s, when the ABS conducted regular surveys about computer use and Internet adoption.

Although Internet use is near pervasive today – figures suggest 88 per cent penetration and 22.31m online users in Australia as of January – it wasn’t always that way.

November 1998 figures, for example, found that just 19 per cent of Australian households were using the Internet; by November 2000, Internet penetration had nearly doubled, to 37 per cent.

The ABS began collecting data on Internet and computer use by individuals in 2001, while questions about household broadband connections were included in the Census in 2006, 2011, and 2016.

“Does any member of this household access the internet from this dwelling?” the broadly-worded question read, specifying that ‘access’ could be over fixed and wireless services via “desktop/laptop computers, mobile or smart phones, tablets, music or video players, gaming consoles, smart TVs, etc”.

Broadband penetration data was invaluable for assisting the planning of evolving Internet infrastructure through the 2000s – including, for example, the 2009 launch of the national broadband network (NBN), whose broad goals included targeted infrastructure rollouts to close the ‘digital divide’ reflecting existing socio-economic constructs.

Ongoing evaluations of fixed-line broadband usage – such as ongoing Bureau of Communications, Arts and Regional Research working paper projecting demand through 2028 – rely heavily on correlating demographic and technology usage data to derive projected trends.

These days, however, most Australians are as likely to be using Internet services outside the home as inside it: figures suggest there are 18.58m mobile phone Internet users this year, up from 15.99m in 2015.

With the NBN shifting from rollout to upgrade mode and new technologies like 5G blurring the boundaries between fixed and mobile Internet access, the ABS said, data about household Internet usage no longer has the value it once did.

“With the growth in internet access outside of the home on mobile and other devices and the fast pace of technological change, the collection of data on household internet access in the Census now has less relevance,” the ABS explained.