The National Broadband Network (NBN) is an important nation-building project that’s being implemented at a time of fundamental change in the way we utilise services over the digital network.
For most Australians – those of us in big cities – the NBN will be a big improvement over the existing access network, thanks to fibre connections.
But for the 7% of Australians in regional and remote areas, the NBN will take the form of either fixed wireless or satellite services.
So are these wireless and satellite services really good enough? Are Australians in rural areas being dudded of appropriate infrastructure?
And should there be flexibility in the NBN roll-out plan to allow remote shires to contribute to bringing fibre to their communities?
The remote Barcoo Shire in western Queensland is a pertinent example of a region that will miss out on the best of the NBN.
Bruce Scott, former mayor of Barcoo Shire told ABC Radio’s AM in late September:
The national information superhighway is so critically important and if we’ve got a second-rate service coming into these communities what reason is there for people to stay?
Scott said that while satellite services planned for Barcoo are a great solution for domestic broadband, they won’t support communities that need real-time, high-bandwidth services – services such as health care, education and government services.
Satellites will not provide video links for hospital clinics, for access to school curriculums – it won’t provide what is needed for these towns to function.
Current Barcoo Shire mayor Julie Groves and Geoffrey Morton, mayor of Diamantina Shire – to the west of Barcoo Shire – proposed earlier this year that 700km of optic fibre, costing A$22 million, should be laid to connect five towns in their shires to the NBN.
Julie Groves told AAP and Suzanne Tindal in July:
We also need our residents and visitors to be able to access mobile communication for safety, business and social media.
Our younger generation will not stay if they are not connected.
In Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory remote towns and communities are sure to have similar concerns to those voiced in the Barcoo and Diamantina Shires.
As well as dudding residents of rural Australian towns, the current NBN design fails to take into account the more than two million Australians and international tourists that take to the roads every year during winter and journey into the outback.
In 2011 outback Queensland had an estimated 381,000 international and domestic visitors who stayed for more than two million nights.
As mentioned, the NBN makes provision for fixed wireless and satellite services yet caravans and motor homes are often moved into remote Australia and reside in one or more locations for months on end.
The NBN will not cater for caravans and motor homes and so for many tourists, WiFi is the only low-cost option.
Unfortunately, for many regional and remote towns – such as those in the Barcoo and Diamantina shires – WiFi hot-spots are not available. Nor are they likely to become available if business is forced to use the NBN fixed wireless and satellite services.
We have already reached the point where travellers need and expect to have internet access. This, in turn, means WiFi is a fundamental service that travellers demand.
Fibre is needed to help support businesses such as caravan parks, hotels and motels so they can provide WiFi to their customers.
Mobile cellular services are also very limited in rural areas. At the Birdsville horse races held every September, only Telstra and Optus provide (limited) mobile service and there is a only limited cellular data available.
As a result, holiday-makers in rural areas have little or no opportunity to utilise the digital network on their journeys.
Quite simply, without fibre connections to regional towns and communities, rural and remote Australia will be left behind.
As is ever the problem with large infrastructure projects, cost is one of the driving factors. While it would be unfeasible to lay enough fibre to connect all Australians to the NBN, it would certainly be possible to increase fibre coverage.
Barcoo and Diamantina shires have committed A$5.5 million to extending fibre coverage into their jurisdictions, calling for state and federal funding to make the plans a reality.
The new Queensland government is in cost-cutting mode and is therefore unlikely to be keen to participate until the budget is an improved position.
But the previous Queensland state government had committed A$2.8 million and indicated it would consider dollar-for-dollar matching.
While the federal government has provided more than A$350 million to fund regional broadband-related projects – including the Digital Regions Initiative, Clever Networks, Indigenous Communications Program and the Regional Backbone Blackspots Program – it is yet to respond to the Barcoo and Diamantina proposal.
It is unlikely the federal government will want to contribute to a fibre network in one area of remote Australia, given the risk of other remote shires calling for similar funding.
Furthermore, efforts to increase fibre roll-out in rural areas are likely to undermine the NBN Co. business case and invite concern about whether or not the NBN satellites are needed.
Is there room for flexibility?
Regional and remote Australia fulfils an important and valuable role in many aspects of Australian business, society and culture.
As Australians we need to ask ourselves the question: are the people that live in remote areas any less important than those that live in urban areas?
Should the government and NBN Co be flexible with the proposed NBN roll-out? More specifically, should remote shires be able to contribute towards fibre network connections if there is demand and a willingness among the community?
The answer should be a resounding yes.
The federal government needs to positively respond to the Barcoo and Diamantina proposal so the project can move ahead. Other regional and remote councils are likely to follow the Barcoo and Diamantina shires with their own proposals and those too should be supported.
The need for flexibility with the NBN roll-out should not be a political football: it should be an opportunity for all Australians to participate equally in the digital revolution, irrespective of where they live or travel around this nation.