It’s time to fix the digital divide – Internet access is broken

Anthony Caruana
27 August, 2015
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I’ve held back – no, really, I have – on writing this but various conversations I’ve had in both private and public forums have driven me to state what for many of us the bleeding obvious but doesn’t seem to sink into the minds of our country’s policy makers.

Access to reliable, fast Internet access is broken.

We have regions of the country that are spoiled for choice when it comes to service providers and connection options. But other areas either have almost no reliable access or are so limited as to live in a virtual monopoly where there’s an illusion of choice.

The reality of the bush

Let’s take the case of Craig and Claire. They live on a farm in regional Queensland. Connectivity for these business owners is poor. Their “fast” connection is with Telstra BigPond using wireless broadband where they getting a whopping (that’s sarcasm in case you missed it) 8GB with BigPond for $59.95. However, they get a $20 bundling discount because of their other services.  Their next step is 15GB for $109.95 less the bundling discount.

Once that 8GB is used, they get dropped to dial-up speeds and fall back to a tablet that they use as a hotspot. That’s another 12GB for $200.

And they’re meant to run a business on that.

My story

I recently moved house. I shifted a massive 6.2km. It’s only a few minutes in the car but another universe when it comes to broadband options.

Apparently, the telephone exchange I have access to is classed as rural. ADSL access is available but I’m on the edge of its usable range.

Two main factors affect the quality of an ADSL service – proximity to the exchange and the quality of your copper cabling. ADSL2 offers a theoretical performance limit of around 24Mbps. But to get that you need to be practically inside the telephone exchange and have good quality cabling.

Unless your home was built very recently, chances are the copper cabling and equipment between your home and the exchange has seen some degradation caused by water, heat or corrosion.

We plugged our address into the checker at ADSL2Exchanges to see what we could expect if we signed on with an ADSL2 service provider. It turns out we’d by lucky to get 1.5Mbps given our proximity to the exchange.

As I work from home, that left me only one effective option – Telstra Cable where I get 500GB for $99 on a naked plan (I don’t want or need a phone line as I use my mobile phone as my only line).

So, even though it looks like I’ve got some choice, the reality is the only option I have for a connection that is HFC cable and there is only one service provider that offers it as Optus’ service stops less that 1km from my property.

If ADSL was a viable option for me I’d have access to an unlimited usage plan for around 60% of the plan I’m on now. At my previous house, I had unlimited access, through Optus Cable, for $90 per month at around 80Mbps.

Oh – and the NBN? I’m not on their plans yet. At one stage my area was on the three-year plan but those forecasts are no longer available so there’s no accountability on a public target.

The rest of the country

It’s true that many parts of the country, particularly urbanised areas, are well serviced with different connectivity options such as the NBN, HFC cable from Telstra and Optus, and ADSL2 from multiple service providers with different plans as well as all the wireless options.

But it would seem that policy from the government is heavily in favour of these areas.  There’s no need to push the NBN when most of the voters live in areas where they’ve got plenty of good connectivity options or talk-back shock jocks tell them the NBN is a technological white elephant.

In my capacity as a journalist I get to talk to a lot of people about all sorts of innovative ideas. And I’m worried. Even my 15-year-old son is talking about leaving the country when he finishes school to work as he sees more opportunities outside the country than here in the technical field he’s interested in.

I’m hearing about companies planning to move to New Zealand where access to high-speed internet connection will make it easier for them to work with the rest of the world than it is here.

Where are we now?

We live in a divided country. There are the haves and the have-nots. Some people have access to reliable Internet access at a reasonable speed at a moderate cost. But many don’t and are paying several times more for a fraction of the service.

When Craig and Claire hear that I have “just” 500GB of data for less than half what they pay for their combined 20GB across two service – they probably roll their eyes. Of course, I can’t see them do that because a video call over Skype or FaceTime isn’t possible over those connections and would chew up valuable bandwidth they need for communicating with customers of their livestock and crops.

The policy we need from the government is simple. Connect every property in Australia within the next two years to a fast connection.

Of course, we can’t even define fast. If anyone can find the government’s definition of broadband speed can you share it in the comments? The US government’s FCC defined broadband as a 25Mbps download connection (note: that’s faster than the theoretical, rarely seen in the wild maximum of ADSL2) and 3Mbps upload.

Our government doesn’t seem to have a definition. Which probably fits with their broadband strategy.

 

20 Comments

20 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. nom says:

    Here’s a few Australian government definitions of “broadband” (and these definitions are very broad indeed)…

    “Under the [Australian Broadband Guarantee], a metro-comparable broadband service was defined as any service that offered a minimum 512 kilobits per second download and 128 kilobits per second upload data speed, with three gigabytes per month data usage at a total cost of $2500 GST inclusive over three years (including installation and connection fees).”
    https://data.gov.au/dataset/australian-broadband-guarantee

    “[Broadband is] Defined by the ABS as an ‘always on’ internet connection with an access speed equal to or greater than 256kbps”
    http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/8166.0Glossary12013-14

    And my favourite…
    “The term ‘broadband’ can be loosely defined as a service that delivers data transfer speeds faster than those achievable using the ‘narrowband’ dial-up internet services that were ubiquitous in the 1990s.”
    http://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=/ic/nbn/report/appendixa.htm

  2. Macworld Australia Staff says:

    Yep – so, nothing that’s actually founded on reality. Perhaps parliament should meet in rural centres and try to do their business on what many Australians have to get by on.

  3. Steve Sanders says:

    The introduction of NBN is being done on the cheap. I am about to have my connection joined from outside the house to the inside. I have been told that the contractors doing the work are allocated $80 per household to connect. They therefore opt for the easiest installation for them but not necessarily best location in the house for the occupant.
    Another business that i know of have a contract to fix up the mistakes the first contractor made. Where is the sense in all this?

    And what is now the government policy on future installations? They have been very quiet on the subject since taking office.

  4. Michael says:

    I too, live more than 5 km from an exchange and just over the hill from a rural centre. I pay $50 for my 4GB of slow broadband from Telstra that comes via a Next-G modern that also carries my useless landline – another $27 / month that is, in my opinion, a waste.
    We are started to be hounded by both Telstra and NBNCo who both say we are able to receive NBN on fixed sight wireless although the NBNCo website says we cannot.
    If the mixup in phone promises/messages/guarantees that we are getting from both organisations, who both seem to phone just to complete some KPI, is any indication of the likelihood of receiving expensive broadband, then it looks like it will be sometime before I can join the 20th Century.

  5. Mick McMillan says:

    I sometimes think that it’d be better if I was still on dial-up [Currently on ADSL2]…..because there are times when I have little or no connectivity at all….and I’m in Upwey, Vic [Belgrave Exchange is my closest Exchange approx 4km's away]
    I have cable to the pole in front of my house but am not able to connect as it’s education Department connection only…….?????
    Mick

  6. Kay Foster says:

    We are in the same boat as Craig & Clare, and we are only 40 minutes away from Brisbane CBD. It made life difficult when we ran our own business, and now that we are retired and pensioners it is ridiculously expensive, and forget watching U-tube or videos as the buffering is woeful.

  7. AndyW says:

    Since the mid 90s, I moved in from the bush and even the suburbs I have lived in since then have been determined by available access speed. I took this course due to many years of frustration with services – but it is not just broadband access that is a problem, it is virtually everything: medical, educational, cultural, retail, postal, rubbish collection, gas, legal, accounting, employment – the list goes on and I accepted that you simply can’t expect otherwise – these things will always be related to population density and it unrealistic and unfair to expect otherwise.

    I understand the frustration, and I wish it weren’t so (as I’d love to be back in the bush myself) but connecting *every* property in Australia to a fast line in two years just isn’t going to happen, just as you aren’t going to get hospitals, police or even gas in every two horse town – it just isn’t economically feasible, especially with the current state of financial affairs. Too bad the funds burned up in school halls and pink batts etc. weren’t instead used on equalising net access but that is the point – when you ask governments to pick winners, they usually pick duds…

  8. Arthur says:

    Try 1Mbps Gold Coast!

  9. Jan says:

    It’s important, if not mandatory to simply ‘hang-in-there’ and trust our hard working spruikers in the ‘House of the People’ ..us simpletons, I.e; seen as: we the sheeple, and are expected to carry on regardless in doing more heavy lifting so that the core enterprises with limitless capital can afford the high data transfer rates in exporting their profits to O/s tax free havens., laughing too, all the way to the bank, and beyond!

    Until the powers that be get their priorities right, we’re doomed to be the laughing stock where communications are concerned, and while Rome burns the fiddlers play to the house, and to their own amusement.

    So, with some patience, us long suffering suckers must continue to support the masters of our destiny whose promises duped us into returning to the jam tin and string with the infantile glee of fairyland.

    It’s the ultimate fantasy to imagine that Australia will ever get NBN as was conceived, which was to be ‘Fibre-to-the-Portal’ methinks, now being mooted as ‘Fibre-to-the Node’, but is really still pipe-dream, to which we’ll eventually wake up to and find that it’s all a nightmare.. though the fiddlers in the house will still play on.

    Oh! Wot a feeling !!

  10. Richard Tustin says:

    We live in rural NSW 10km out of Albury in table top NSW (new developing area) and are in a similar situation to your Queensland friends. We only have access to ADSL1 from Telstra. At dial up speeds. No plans to upgrade to Adsl 2 as NBN is supposed to be arriving in the next 10 yrs of we are lucky. I am a medical specialist and require access to my work server from home. Not at those speeds. We rely on Telstra wireless 4G (it’s not even 3G speeds as we live in a black hole) and 15gb costs over $100. Only lasts for 15 days. Then it’s back to 64kbbs. It sometimes takes 24 hrs to update my mac. We have just returned from Europe where householders have access to 200Mbps and business owners 700Mbps. This country is never going to be able to compete. Ever. I am a kiwi. I think it’s time to go home.

  11. Verno Heijn says:

    now that is what I have been dealing with for ten years or more. The only provider that services the rural areas of Tasmania offered me the convenience of ADSL instead of their mobile broadband. After extensive tries they said that ADSL was no longer available to me even though my neighbours on both sides of me can get it but I can’t. Explain that! So after reapplying for mobile broadband (at my expense) I am back to where I started.
    Now the NBN is available in my area, can I get it? No. If I could move my house 50 meters then yes I can. How stupid is that.

    If every person was willing to tell their story and send it to their governmental representatives, then they may take some notice!

  12. Con says:

    The digital divide is real and has been so for many years. We live in regional Illawarra in NSW and I run my online business from there. We are too far from the exchange for ADSL so are totally reliant on Telstra 4G Bigpond: we pay $155 a month after a discount for the max you can get: 25GB. then have a back-up Pre-Paid 4G mobile broadband device which is even more expensive. here’s an idea: there’s a digital divide between those like us who are totally reliant on residential mobile broadband, and then there are the hundreds of visitors and tourists who also use this bandwidth at similar rates (especially in school holidays). How about Telstra creates a new residential mobile broadband plan, eg max 50 or 100GB at half the current cost for 25GB, for those who have no other access to broadbnad, and leaves the visiting mobile phone data users on the same rates they are on now. Of course one day we might actually get NBN fixed wireless which will have to be a much better deal…. won’t it?

  13. Gwen says:

    I also live in rural NSW and recently have been receiving printed letters from NBN Co inviting me to go onto Fixed Wireless NBN – now available! Connection to fibre optic cable is not available to those of us in rural areas – despite the fact that I have fibre optic cable running along the front boundary of my property.
    However, both my neighbours have been told that they are not actually in direct line of sight to the new wireless tower (approx 5 km away) and will need a 3m pole on top of their roof to access the next nearest tower (15 – 20km away). The only other option is satellite.
    None of this is satisfactory.
    I’m sticking with my ADSL, which is not fantastic, but is acceptable.
    We definitely live in a divided country and I don’t see anything changing.

  14. Philip Caballero says:

    This government don’t seem to have clear definitions of anything but mining, exploration, corporate tax breaks, live animal exports and asylum seeker detention.

  15. Steve Haines says:

    You are highlighting an issue that is of critical concern to so many of us. At this time in the history of mankind access to the internet at reasonable speed is essential for education, business as well as leisure.
    It was a deliberate policy decision of the Liberal Party to delay and dumb down our country’s broadband network. This was flagged before the last election yet many people in rural and regional areas still voted for the Nationals or the Liberal Party.
    People in rural and regional areas need to communicate directly with their local National or Liberal party representatives and tell them clearly that they will not vote for them unless their government commits to high speed affordable access for all Australians. The Greens have by far the most advanced, costed policies for a 21 century internet. Let your Lib/Nat pollies know you will vote Green unless they address your internet shortfalls – that will get them moving!

  16. Neil Davenport says:

    Decent internet access in Australia, if you are lucky enough to be able to get it, is ridiculously overpriced. I have spent most of the past four years in northern Thailand. I have a fibre connection with download speed over 10MB/s and upload around 2MB/s with unlimited volume for under AU$40 per month. On top of that just about every restaurant, cafe and hotel has free wi-fi. I spent some time back in Australia earlier this year and the cost and speed of internet was horrendous. New Zealand is no better. Australia and New Zealand are the only places I know of that charge for volume as well as speed. Volume doesn’t cost the carriers only bandwidth does. It seems the reason they do this is to make some of their own services, which they provide unmetered, more attractive.

  17. Tony says:

    Absoolutely on the point. I live about 60 km from Canberra and my only option is wireless broadband at quite significant rates. I am too far from the exchange for ADSL and even the exchange is steam driven not having caller id. Not that I connect to the exchange as I have closed my landline ad fax connections and rely on mobile phone. In people even more remote and sometimes not even more remote there is no mobile service at all. Having said that though it is a huge job to connect the whole country to high speed broadband.

  18. Belinda Stevenson says:

    We live in Melbourne’s northern suburbs are at at the end of the exchange – the problems we’ve had over the years are ridiculous.
    Gone from Telstra to Optus (with little service) to a local company, and now with tpg – who have being wonderful and deals are great – BUT, the internet speed is ridiculous, on and off, and all because we leave at the end of the exchange.
    When I was working, I worked only two blocks closer – internet access was superb……
    I don’t understand…and we are one of the last in line for NBN if it ever happens….all the new northern suburbs 10 km up the road, have it, but us, forget it!
    Yep, something needs to be done…

  19. Chris says:

    I’ll see you all and raise you…
    Friends of ours live in Heidelberg Heights, a prominent suburb in Melbourne. They moved 400m up the road – literally the same road. Asked for their cable to be moved. Not available. Ok, then ADSL – yes, but only ADSL 1. Not 2. So it’s not just a rural/urban issue, it’s a ‘failure to deliver an essential service’ issue.

  20. Max. Boyd Richards says:

    Thank you Anthony for raising this issue. I was starting to think that this discussion was just one that was taking place between us rural people.

    For those who are locked in to mobile broadband the cost and limited allowance causes both frustration and annoyance. Statements such as “watch it on iView” and “double data” are like dreams. Satellite is not the answer.

    The answers are not difficult, double allowances and reduce costs to those who are genuinely effected. The effects on the bottom will not be noticeable by the telcos (read Telstra) but it will be noticed by the consumer.

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