Broadband: It’s buggered in the bush

By LAURIE PATTON | 17 June 2016

Unless we wish to see a two class Australia, with the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ determined by geography, we need to be providing #BetterBroadband in the bush.

Each year the Broadband for the Bush conference reveals 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 are the limitations of their broadband access, or indeed the lack thereof.

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

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 urban 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. There are still those who think that we should leave the delivery of broadband to the market, despite the history of neglect by the privately owned telcos.

If you separate metropolitan, regional, rural and remote communities as cost centres, then people living in the bush are buggered – as they were prior to the launch of the NBN. There was still a belief back then that the market would meet the demand for broadband. In fact, commercial service providers only went where it was most 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 regional, rural 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 have been feasible to build a nationwide telephone service covering such a large country on the narrow criteria of direct financial cost vs returns. The situation is the same when it comes to providing Internet access.

Just as people in our cities deserve 21st Century fibre not a technically outdated copper (FTTN) service, people in regional and rural areas need fibre, or at the very least fixed wireless, unless they are so remote that satellite really is the only viable option. As Internet Australia has repeatedly 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.

Internet Australia maintains that we would have been better to have continued with the original NBN full-fibre (FTTP) model. Rolling out an inferior copper wire based version is a waste of time and money when you take into account its relatively short life-span – it is widely acceted that FTTN will need to be replaced within five to 10 years after the rollout is completed.

Fortunately, there is now available a third alternative; fibre to the driveway, or fibre to the distribution point (FTTdp). FTTdp is a good compromise; one that will provide far faster speeds than FTTN and one that is upgradable, which FTTN is not. Once the fibre is run through the existing ducts in the street you have the option of using the existing copper wires over the short hop into the premises or running fibre all the way. If you go with copper first up, it will be relatively inexpensive to upgrade to fibre later on a premises-by-premises basis whenever a customer wishes to do this.

One of the biggest concerns regularly expressed at Broadband for the Bush is the provision of broadband via satellite. While it is vastly superior to anything they’ve had in the past, the 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.

If we accept that what is now considered sufficient in terms of speeds and data caps will simply not be enough in 10-15 years’ time then it follows that we will need a lot more expensive satellite capacity just to keep up with demand. If we continue to increase the number of people using satellite then we’ll need to factor in a massive expense to deploy extra satellites at some point. 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 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 we actually expanded the fixed line fibre rollout in regional and rural areas wherever this is feasible.

Access to fast and affordable 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 totally 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.

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.

(This article, since updated, was written by Laurie Patton when he was CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia, from 2014-2017.)