New money is to be poured into the digital economy in Australia to give more businesses online opportunities and increase the number of households with access to high speed broadband by 2020, it has been announced.

The Government will also provide $23.8 million over the next three years to help residents, SMEs and not for profit organisations in the 40 communities that will be the first to benefit from the National Broadband Network, communications minister Stephen Conroy said.

'Maximising the benefit of the digital economy requires action by all levels of government, industry and the community as a whole. The digital economy will ultimately encompass the entire economy and most, if not all, facets of our society,' Conroy added.

However, evidence suggests that Australia is some way behind other countries. The latest comparative OECD data indicates that as of December 2008 Australia's rate of broadband take up, as measured by the number of subscribers per 100 inhabitants, was 25.4.

This is behind the US at 25.8, the United Kingdom at 28.5, Canada at 29 and South Korea at 32.

In terms of price, Australia is ranked third most expensive in the OECD when it comes to monthly broadband prices, more expensive than the US, UK, Canada, Japan and South Korea.

There is also evidence that many homes and businesses in Australia cannot access high-speed broadband services currently.

The new digital strategy blueprint says the National Broadband Network will provide the majority of Australian households and businesses with better access to manage their energy use, while 90% of high priority consumers will be able to access individual electronic health records.

'Building the NBN is a key step towards that vision, which has as one of its goals Australia being among the top five OECD countries by 2020 when it comes to the percentage of households connected to broadband at home,' said Conroy.

The blueprint also spells out that by 2015, 495,000 telehealth consultations will have been delivered over high speed broadband and that by 2020, 25% of all specialists will be delivering telehealth conferences to remote patients.

It also says that: Australian schools, TAFE and university campuses will have the ability to 'develop and collaborate on innovative education services' and Australia will have doubled its teleworking so 12% of employees may work away from traditional workplaces.

Four out of five Australians will communicate to the Government with the Internet or some other type of online service, it predicts.

'By connecting to high speed broadband, households will benefit through savings generated from time saving activities such as telecommuting for remote work and study and improved access to business and job opportunities, health, education, social and government services,' Conroy explained.

He added that the strategy would help contribute to Australia's productivity and 'maintain our global competitiveness'.