LAURIE PATTON. Broadband: It’s buggered in the bush

Last week’s Broadband for the Bush conference held in the rarefied atmosphere of Brisbane’s State Library revealed just how disillusioned people living in rural, regional and remote Australia have become with the state of their telecommunications services. Chief among the concerns expressed by farmers, welfare agencies, government officials and Indigenous leaders was the limitations of their broadband access, or indeed the lack thereof.

Internet Australia has called for the Universal Service Obligation – a scheme designed to ensure that everyone can have a basic telephone – to be extended to include broadband connectivity. The Productivity Commission is currently holding an inquiry into the USO and it is highly likely that there will be quite a number of submissions from delegates who saw this as an issue critical to their futures and those of their children.

Internet access is not just about people keeping in contact with one another online or watching television. Children struggling to complete distance education with limited download speeds, limited data allowances and frequent service disruptions is but one of the issues facing people living outside the major population centres. Driving hours at a time, often on multiple occasions in the same week, for medical appointments that could very effectively be handled online, via videoconference or remote diagnostic systems, with high speed Internet access also had delegates pleading for action.

Add the extraordinary emerging opportunities for the so-called “Internet of things” to transform agricultural production, stock management and land conservation, and you can understand why broadband is actually as important to people outside the capital cities as it is to uber-Internet users living their lives via Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the like.

At the heart of the matter is how we view equality of access to broadband, and thus how we envisage the role of the National Broadband Network.

The management of the NBN is required to deliver a return on investment and, theoretically at least, for it to become a saleable asset at the end of the primary construction period. Is this a sensible and realisable strategy, or simply a device to allow the Finance Department to designate the project as a government enterprise and keep its necessary capital borrowings conveniently off the government’s balance sheet?

If you separate metropolitan, rural, regional and remote communities as cost centres, then people living in the bush are buggered, as they were prior to 2007. There was still a belief back then that the market would meet the demand for broadband in the bush. Instead, service providers only went where it was profitable.

The market driven approach completely ignores the broader returns on investment to the economy and the social fabric of Australia, through greater productivity in rural, regional and remote communities, better education and health outcomes, and increased viability of non-metropolitan areas as alternative and more sustainable places to live.

It would never be viable to build a ubiquitous broadband network covering such a large country in the narrow sense of direct financial cost vs returns, or to deliver the sort of Internet speeds that will arguably be needed in the coming decades. However, such a static and myopic financial analysis simply misses the point. What’s more, if we keep arguing about the costs over a four year budget cycle we are unlikely to see a universally acceptable outcome.

As part of the cost reduction strategy forced on it by the Abbott government the NBN management has more than doubled the number of premises that will now be delivered satellite access. This might not seem like a big deal, but its implication for people in the bush is significant.

Firstly, while it is vastly superior to anything they’ve had in the past, the recently launched NBN Sky Muster satellite service has serious limitations that will only become more acute as time goes by – as more and more customers join up and also as service requirements increase. The more people on the satellite the more congested it will become. Currently the top speed on Sky Muster is 25 Mbps and the data limit is 75 Gigabytes. Barely OK for now maybe, but what about in the future?

According to NBN, the Sky Muster satellite service has a 15 year lifespan. This leaves us with two clear choices. If we continue to maximise the number of people using satellite then we’ll need to factor in a massive expense to deploy replacements when the time comes. If we accept that what is now considered sufficient in terms of speeds and data caps will simply not be enough in 15 years’ time then it follows that we will need a lot more expensive satellite capacity just to keep up with demand. It is likely that this will occur even before the current satellites have passed their use by date.

Both in terms of satisfying customer requirements and on replacement cost grounds it would be more sensible if we reduced the number of premises relying on satellite. And given that wireless also has its limits, it would be best all-round if over the next decade or so we actually expanded the fixed line fibre rollout in rural and regional areaswherever this is feasible. Fixed wireless is superior to satellite, but if you want to be future-proofed you need fibre.

As Internet Australia recently told the Senate NBN committee, the benefit of deploying fibre is that it has virtually unlimited capacity for increased delivery speeds as the technology at each end is upgraded from time to time. Just as people in our cities deserve 21st Century fibre not a technically outdated copper FTTN service, people in rural and regional areas need fibre, or at the very least fixed wireless, unless they are so remote that satellite really is the only viable option.

Internet Australia believes that access to broadband is now an essential service. In the near future, if not already, slow and unreliable broadband access will be next to useless and considered unacceptable.

If Australia has genuine ambitions to become an innovation nation we need to jettison the current NBN strategy and replace it with one fit-for-purpose in the emerging digitally enabled world economy.

If we want to leverage the opportunities afforded by the Internet for social development we need to eliminate the “digital divide” and ensure that everyone has access to fast, reliable and affordable broadband.

And unless we wish to see a two class Australia, with the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ determined by geography we need to be building a better broadband for the bush.

Laurie Patton is CEO Internet Australia.

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