It’s never been more important to close the digital divide

By LAURIE PATTON | 6 April 2020

As we deal with COVID-19 people are being required to work from home. Students are doing their lessons online. Telehealth is becoming more common. All this will change the way we use the Internet forever.

Access to technology and ‘digital literacy‘ are two of the most critical issues confronting us in the digitally-enabled 21st Century. But to begin with Australia needs #BetterBroadband!

According to NBN Co, broadband demand is “skyrocketing” but they have everything under control. OK, so they and the telcos have upped their data capacity and, for those with fast and reliable broadband, all is well. Daytime data demands have not reached the usual evening peaks so of course the system is coping.

But that’s not the point. What about the third or more of the population with inferior FTTN (old copper wire) connections?

No amount of extra capacity at the telco end will help those customers who are on the wrong side of a digital divide. You can’t make FTTN run faster by throwing more data at it.

What’s more, the experience of working from home has highlighted the importance of fast uploads. This is not something you get with FTTN.

Essentially, there are the lucky Australians – those who have a fast and reliable NBN connection, and the unlucky Australians – those stuck with an inferior broadband service that needs to be upgraded.

One of my principle concerns right now is about the impact on the productivity of people working from home, which will flow through to businesses and the economy.

I’m also concerned about the mental health of people battling with poor Internet connections. It’s frustrating enough when your movie buffers, but what if the system fails when you’re trying to send in an assignment or a report to the boss who has been hounding you for it all day?

Of course, for too many Australians even having access to the Internet and the skills to use it is not guaranteed.

The impact of the Coronavirus will most likely continue for quite a while and therefore so will the need for better broadband in people’s homes – and the need to ensure we do not allow the digital divide to remain.

When we emerge from this crisis the likelihood is that a good many bosses will have become so accustomed to their employees working from home this will become a permanent thing – even if it’s only a day or so a month.

We could even see enhanced interest in decentralisation as more employers realise they don’t need to have all their workers located in expensive CBD offices. Regional areas have already seen an increase in interest from people looking to leave our congested capital cities over the past few years.

The federal government has made a welcomed move by allowing bulk-billing for online medical and mental health consultations. There’s only so much that can be done over the phone, of course. Doctors need high-quality video for the more complex cases.

Telehealth is of immense benefit to people in rural and regional areas, as well as people with disabilities who have difficulty making it in to a doctor’s surgery. This is a temporary move, but hopefully it will become permanent.

TelSoc, which I joined late last year as Vice President, has urged the federal government to include fixing the NBN in its stimulus funding.

We’ve called on the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission:

a)      To include in its considerations the inequity of access and affordability of broadband and other telecommunications services as has been highlighted by the need for people to work or study online at home due to the COVID-19 crisis; and

b)      To recommend that the Government fund NBN Co to enable it to employ suitable retrenched workers, retrain them as required, and deploy them to begin upgrading problematic NBN connections as a national stimulus measure and in order to enable a more rapid shift towards a more digitally-enabled community and economy post the crisis.

It makes sense to include a technology upgrade for the NBN in our post- pandemic planning. In fact, the sooner NBN Co starts the planning the sooner people can expect to see an improvement in their home internet connections.

Replacing the FTTN section of the NBN will need to occur sooner or later – so why not do it now and create employment opportunities for some of the many people who are progressively becoming unemployed?

Even if the government simply made an in-principle commitment and NBN Co started the planning now, this would give industry and people generally greater confidence in the future than currently exists.

Over in New Zealand, where they persisted with fibre, 87 percent of premises will have access to a full-fibre connection by the end of 2022. Chorus NZ (the equivalent of NBN Co) is already delivering gigabit speeds to many of its customers. What’s more, over time they found ways to reduce their per premises installation cost by around 40 percent.

If we learn from the Kiwis, we can roll out fibre here for far less than it was costing back when the NBN project began. It would probably wouldn’t cost more than continuing to use problematic old copper wires and run-down Pay-TV cables with their associated remediation expenses.

Fixing the NBN would be simple enough technically. NBN Co’s engineers are well and truly capable of making the switch back to a fibre-based system – and no doubt most are keen to do so – plus we have the lessons learned in NZ to follow.

POSTSCRIPT.

1. This article‘s prediction that almost half of us will work from home one day is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but it certainly supports my contention that we’ll need to fix the NBN as more of us take to the ‘at home’ option.

2. The extent of the digital divide is highlighted in the Australian Digital Inclusion Index.

(Laurie Patton is Vice President of TelSoc and the former CEO / Executive Director of  Internet Australia, on whose behalf he launched an ongoing campaign for #BetterBroadband. This article. since updated, was re-published in Crikey, Pearls and Irritations and The Mandarin. The views expressed here are his own.)