Broadband: It’s buggered in the bush too

By LAURIE PATTON | 17 June 2016

PREFACE: Sadly, not that much has changed for a large number of NBN customers in rural and regional Australia since I wrote this article, especially those stuck with the FTTN version using old copper wires..

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

Year after year the annual Broadband for the Bush conference revealed just how disillusioned people living in rural, regional and remote Australia had become with their telecommunications services. Chief among the concerns expressed by farmers, business people, welfare agencies, government officials and Indigenous leaders was the limitations of their broadband access, or indeed for too many 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 is but one of the issues facing people living outside the capital cities. Likewise, driving hours at a time for medical appointments with GP’s and specialists, often on multiple occasions in the same week. Consultations that could very effectively be handled online, via videoconferencing technologies and/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 our capital cities as it is to uber-Internet users living their urban lives via social media.

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 we should leave the delivery of broadband to the market, despite the history of neglect by the privately owned telcos. We would never had seen a nationwide basic telephone service had the role not been given to the Post Master General and been funded by the federal government a hundred years ago. In fact, commercial service providers generally only go where they believe it will be most profitable, as was seen with the patchy rollout of Pay-TV cables 25 years ago.

What’s more, 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 more affordable places to live and work.

Just as those in our capital cities need 21st Century broadband people in regional and rural areas deserve to have high speed fixed-line connections – unless they are so remote that fixed-wireless or satellite really is the only viable option.

As the history of the NBN now clearly shows, it would have been far better to have continued with the original full-fibre (FTTP) model. Rolling out an inferior copper wire version is proving to be a waste of time and money. The benefit of deploying fibre, as was originally planned, is it has virtually unlimited capacity for increased delivery speeds as the technology at each end is upgraded from time to time.

When you take into account its relatively short life-span – it is widely accepted that FTTN will need to be replaced within five to 10 years after the rollout is completed, if not sooner – the Coalition’s so-called multi-technology mix model is therefore inherently flawed. .

A third option is what’s called fibre to the driveway, or fibre to the curb (FTTC) as NBN Co insists on calling it. This was not around in 2009 when Labor launched the NBN, nor in 2013 when then communications minister Malcolm Turnbull was ordered to “demolish” the NBN.

FTTC is a good interim compromise; one that will provide 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.

Fixed-wireless and satellite delivery have their own issues so they should only be used where a fixed-line is simply not a viable option.

Access to fast and affordable broadband is now an essential service. If Australia has 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 geographical ‘digital divide’ and ensure everyone has access to fast, reliable and affordable broadband.

POSTSCRIPT

1. In April 2020 a spokesperson for Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Rural Australia appeared on the ABC Landline program. The interview focussed on the NBN Sky Muster satellite service which has seen significant improvements in recent times. The overall impression from this segment could be that things are now fine in the bush.

However, BIRRR only represents around 12,000 members who mostly live in very remote areas and rely on satellite or fixed-wireless broadband – less than 10 percent of NBN connections. There are millions of NBN Co customers in rural and regional Australia who are not living in remote areas and are being lumbered with FTTN.

The original Labor model envisaged 7 percent of premises on satellite and fixed-wireless. However, the Coalition subsequently increased both footprints. But more disturbingly, as they rush to be able to say they completed the rollout on time NBN Co is pushing some premises originally slated for fixed-line connections onto fixed-wireless because it’s quicker to deploy. This includes people living within 20 minutes of the Adelaide CBD. That means more people being delivered a lesser service while also placing more pressure on the fixed-wireless network.

While there have been improvements the original satellite and fixed-wireless services (with hopefully more to come) the reality is that FTTN cannot he improved, is technically inferior to both FTTC and FTTP, and will need to be replaced. That was acknowledged in the Coalition’s original multi-technology mix model. The risk is that when it comes to replacing FTTN a priority  wil be given to capital city customers.

2. Telstra’s decision to only offer a maximum 50Mbps plan to more than half its NBN customers is another setback in the quest for #BetterBroadband and further vindication of Labor’s NBN model. It’s the latest fulfilment of a highly political decision by Tony Abbott to instruct Turnbull to demolish NBN Co.

3. BTW, former NBN Co boss Bill Morrow belatedly conceded that FTTN was causing serious technical problems. This came as no surprise to those who’d consistently warned the Government this would be the case. As FTTN is widely used in country towns, where the old copper wires are just not up to scratch, it adds to the technological disadvantages visited on people in the bush.

4. While neither side of politics said much about the NBN during the 2019 federal election period, the fact is Australia is falling behind in the race to leverage the benefits – economic and social – of an emerging digitally-enabled future.

(This article, since updated, was written by Laurie Patton when he was CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia. He is now Vice President of TelSoc.)