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Bailey Brooks, who lives on her family’s station 400km south of Alice Springs, won nbn Co’s national drawing competition with an illustration of the SkyMuster satellite. But is the satellite enough for her family? AAP/nbn Co

Regional Australia is crying out for equitable access to broadband

Internet and broadband connectivity are the foundation of the networked economy. But to ensure the benefits of the networked economy are evenly distributed, the Australian government needs to ensure access to the internet to encourage and support innovation.

A recent report from SGS Economics and Planning highlights a widening gap between the economic workhorses of Sydney and Melbourne and regional Australia.

All of the key sectors experiencing growth depend upon the networked economy. The emerging economic environment is leveraging the rapid rise in real-time connectivity between people, businesses, devices and systems.

The result is the digitisation of many transactions and growing importance of data. The Productivity Commission’s draft report on data use and availability highlights the need for clear thinking to make this transformation fair for all stakeholders.

When the telephone network was rolled out, this was enshrined in the Universal Service Obligation (USO), a framework to provide a basic level of connectivity.

A key question is whether the USO principle of connectivity is sufficient for the emerging Australian networked economy. The answer is very clearly “yes”. But urgent attention is required to deliver fair, equitable and cost-effective access to broadband and internet connectivity to enable economic development in the cities and the regions.

To be digitally inclusive, Australia needs to overcome the digital divide. There is a significant divergence in the nature and availability of communication and internet services for regional Australia.

The launch of nbn co’s SkyMuster satellite. AAP Image/National Broadband Network

nbn co’s broadband index clearly highlights the widening gap between metropolitan areas and regional areas not serviced by an NBN plan.

The reaction from regional Australia has been very clear. A new Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition between the Australian Customer Action Network (ACCAN), the National Farmers’ Federation, the Country Women’s Association of NSW, the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association and AgForce Queensland is advocating for better access in five key areas.

This sentiment is supported by Internet Australia’s submission to the Productivity Commission. The group, which includes the Melbourne Networked Society Institute, argues for important changes to ensure connectivity.

So, what is being advocated?

Universal service obligation

Australians need a new USO provision that incorporates both voice and data connectivity to ensure internet access is guaranteed to all citizens.

This will address digital cohesion and ensure everyone can participate in the growing networked economy. nbn co should be allowed to provide retail services to customers where there is only one commercial provider to encourage competition and access.

Service guarantees and reliability

As broadband deployment and uptake increase, service offerings need to provide better and more transparent guarantees to customers. The network should have better reliability measures and offer services with certain quality of customer experience.

Countries such as the UK already provide a reporting framework to make ISPs accountable for their performance. This includes the speed of connection customers can expect to receive during peak hours.

Such requirements support competition by focusing service providers on differentiation while lifting performance. This creates incentives for investing in resources to address emerging issues such as the effect of backhaul networks on broadband performance.

Mobile network access

Mobile network technology is critical for the economic activities of regional Australia. Ensuring that network coverage is expanded to everyone also promotes social cohesion.

Regional Australia needs network coverage to take advantage of emerging opportunities from technologies such as the internet of things. This will enable significant productivity gains in industry sectors such as mining and resources, agriculture and food processing, as well as professional services.

A government commitment to mobile network coverage is a key step to guarantee such investments and make it attractive for network operators to build the network.

Fair and equitable broadband access

nbn co’s SkyMuster satellite services (the second satellite will be available in 2017) and its fixed wireless services will face significant demand, which presents issues for fair and equitable access. This will create difficulties in matching the needs of different stakeholders across regional Australia.

On the one hand, new services such as internet access on (Qantas and Virgin) flights could potentially add congestion to satellite services, depending on the access and allocation of resources.

Alternatively, new business opportunities enabled by the internet of things and the digital economy might demand low-latency connectivity, which a satellite service cannot provide in regional Australia.

Therefore, to realise the potential gains, nbn co needs to support investment in development and adoption of new broadband technologies that can provide greater bandwidth, or lower latency, services cost-effectively to regional Australia.

Digital capacity building

Through the government’s digital transformation agenda, it is imperative to ensure regional Australia is empowered through programs focused on digital capacity building.

This should include skills development, assistance to access new technologies and support for businesses and consumers. As the data becomes a key economic enabler, data skills and platforms for regional Australia will also become a major priority.

While the case for lifting the economic and social participation of regional Australia in the emerging networked economy is very strong, will the policy framework evolve to make it a priority? The bush is crying out for equitable access to broadband.

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