Most Australians will be forced to move onto the NBN within 18 months of it being switched on in their area, and that means navigating what can be confusing new contracts.
So, what are your rights regarding landline and internet connections?
Many consumers can and do manage without a landline. But particularly for those without a reliable mobile service, a landline can be essential. It is included in many phone and internet “bundles” offered by internet service providers.
Standard telephone services (primarily landline services) are subject to a Customer Service Guarantee enshrined in law under the Telecommunications Act 1997.
This means that standards apply to common services such as connection of a phone line, repairs of that line and attending appointments on time. The provider will have to pay compensation to the customer if the Customer Service Guarantee standards are not met.
Despite this, some providers suggest a customer waive his or her customer service guarantee rights. There are safeguards for this waiver to be effective, primarily in that the provider must explain the nature of the rights to the customer before asking for the waiver.
The idea behind allowing providers to request a waiver of the Customer Service Guarantee is that it will allow customers to obtain cheaper services than would otherwise be the case. However, we might question the integrity of the consent typically given to such waivers, given consumers generally don’t read contracts and may have little understanding of the value of the Customer Service Guarantee or the likelihood of having to claim under it.
In any event, providers cannot ask for a waiver for Universal Service Obligations, which ensure accessible services for all customers, including those with a disability and those who live in remote areas.
So there are no statutory obligations for internet providers, or NBN Co, to connect customers within a particular time frame or respond promptly to complaints.
The main safeguard for customers for internet services is in the Australian Consumer Law (ACL).
If an internet service provider promises a particular broadband speed and does not provide that speed, the provider may have engaged in misleading conduct contrary to the ACL. Damages and even penalty payments could be awarded against it. And fine print qualifications to the headline statement about internet speeds will not necessary protect the provider.
In addition, the Consumer Guarantees under the ACL (not to be confused with the Customer Service Guarantee under the Telecommunications Act) ensure that any equipment provided with an internet service must be of acceptable quality, and services be provided with due care and skill.
If these standards are not met, the consumer has a right to certain remedies under the ACL and damages for losses that result from the failure. These rights should go some way to protecting telecommunications consumers, although of course they do not directly guarantee that the provider will arrive on time for a scheduled appointment.
So while you may wish to charge your internet service provider for not turning up to an installation appointment, you wouldn’t get far under current Australian law.
The Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network (NBN) released its first report on Friday, just as most people on the east coast of Australia headed into a long weekend, complete with two sporting grand finals.
The release on a Friday afternoon, sometimes referred to by the media as the “Friday news dump”, is generally what governments do when they want the published report to gather dust.
In fact, its hundreds of pages actually included two reports from the one committee. The dissenting report, supported by its Liberal Party members, including the committee’s chair Sussan Ley, contradict many of the conclusions of the first, which was backed by the Labor Party members and Australian Greens, among others.
One ironic benefit of the report is that whatever your political view, there will be something that you’re likely agree with. But is that the way to create good internet policy?
The report makes 23 recommendations. These range from recommending that the NBN cost and plan for a switch for all remaining Fibre to the Node (FTTN) connections to use Fibre to the Curb (FTTC), through to recommending that the government measure and report on “digital inclusion”.
Many of these recommendations are dismissed or ignored in the Chair’s dissenting report.
As political and business commentator Alan Kohler summarised in The Australian:
Like so much of Australian public policy over the past 10 years, the NBN has been hopelessly politicised, so that anything that comes out of any politician’s mouth on the subject can be ignored as most likely unreliable twaddle.
The challenges of the process
Given the political nature of the process and the desired outcomes, in my view, there is a bias built into the process from the start.
This is both in how facts are interpreted and presented in the report, and how groups, companies and individuals with specific vested interests use committees as a means of stating their claims.
The report claims for example that FTTC is a “future-proofed technology” whereas FTTN is not, but little evidence is given to back up the claim.
It appears “future-proofing” is simply a term for the fact that FTTC would theoretically cost less to upgrade than FTTN, but complete data is not offered.
In another case, the report discusses complaints made to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman about connection delay issues, citing a “slight decrease” in the number of complaints relative to the number of activated premises.
The decrease is not entirely insignificant: for example, complaints made about 0.98% of total new connections in quarter three of 2015-16 dropped to 0.56% in quarter two of 2016-17.
The rate of fault complaints about NBN services has also dropped slightly over time and is running at 0.15% of premises activated (2,460 complaints made out of 1,652,564 premises activated over time in quarter two of 2016-17).
Another key problem with committees of this sort is that during the time it takes to investigate, write and publish the report, events have overtaken the process.
The report recommends that the NBN cost a plan to substitute FTTC for FTTN. This has already happened after a fashion, with NBN Co presenting costing to the NBN Co board and to the government. The proposal was apparently rejected because it would have been too expensive and not kept NBN Co’s funding within the A$49 billion limit.
Much of what is included in the report are issues that have been discussed by previous committees, but also more widely in the public sphere. We have seen the same topics, arguments, paucity of data and overreliance on anecdote time and again.
Given the government’s “Friday news dump”, a more general question to ask is whether making submissions to these committees is worth the time and effort?
I personally attended an expert session in Parliament held by the previous committee in early 2016. The same issues and questions were asked then and by and large the same types of responses were given. Nothing came of that and this report largely rehashes the same conversation.
As Alan Kohler remarked, public policy shaping the NBN has been marked by political motives and to a far lesser extent, economic or social ones. For that reason, data is not being given proper weight, and is often shaped to support a political perspective.
Given the situation, we are perhaps fortunate to have made the progress we have.
With all of the negative press about Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN), consumers who have the option to switch to the NBN from a working broadband connection might be forgiven for being cautious. After the NBN is made available in an area, residents have up to 18 months to switch from their current plans to one provided on the NBN. Once it is available in an area however, residents are usually deluged with offers from various internet service providers (ISPs) about switching, making it hard to ignore.
Moving to NBN on HFC
In my area in Western Australia, I have had HFC from Telstra for many years and so changing to the NBN does not involve a change in the underlying technology. Although some researchers have classified HFC as being an inferior technology to Fibre to the Node, it is actually capable of delivering speeds of 100 Mbps down and 40 Mbps up. Within the next one to two years HFC will be capable of 1 Gbps speeds with the roll out of DOCSIS 3.1.
HFC connections may still suffer if ISPs do not adequately provision adequate CVC capacity on the NBN but HFC does not have the same limitations as Fibre to the Node with regard to the distance from the node. There is also a possibility that the NBN will see more homes connected to a node than was the case when Telstra ran the network. This may also impact performance.
In my case, I was consistently getting speeds of 100 Mbps for downloads but only 2 Mbps for uploads. Prior to the NBN, these speeds have been a luxury for those Australian’s who lived in areas that were services by Telstra and Optus with HFC.
Making the switch to the NBN was relatively simple but uncovered some decisions that it is worth spending time considering. If doing a conversion, some of the options aren’t made obvious by the sales team and so need to be explicitly requested.
The question of speed
Once you have decided on an ISP, there is the question of what speed of connection is available at any given residence. HFC doesn’t suffer from a slowdown based on the distance from the “node” and so speeds up to 100 Mbps are available. ISPs like Telstra however, sell plans based on download limits and at the default of 25 Mpbs. Choosing up to 100 Mbps costs another AUD 30 a month.
It seems that for most Australians who have connected to the NBN, the default of 25 Mbps has been the most popular choice, with 53% of fixed connections being at 25 Mbps and a further 29% at the lowest tier of 12 Mbps. For the average family just watching streaming video and using social media and browsing, this is likely to be fine. It has resulted however in the overall average speed of internet connections in Australia remaining low at 10.1 Mbps.
Choice of wireless router
Another choice that doesn’t seem important at the time is the choice of wireless router that ISPs offer. Here again, the default for Telstra is a basic Sagemcom F@ST 5535. And it is basic. It doesn’t support the fastest wireless protocols used by recent smartphones and laptops, 802.11ac. The fixed cable connections from the router are also not the fastest kind. Not having the fastest wireless can make a significant difference to the overall speed of the internet connection of devices and so it is always worth upgrading.
Some of the routers also have the ability to fail over to using 4G if the NBN connection is not available for any reason. This may be important because on the NBN, the landline phone is switched over to using the main internet connection using Voice over IP (VoIP) and not the physical connection over the old copper network. However, if the power goes out, the phone will also be unavailable even by this route.
Other than for the phone connection, any wireless router can be connected to the NBN modem. The Telstra router can then be simply used for the phone connection and its WiFi switched off.
Making the switch
For me, and I stress the personal nature of this, the switch was fast, efficient and painless. From contacting Telstra, the wireless router was shipped within 4 days and the appointment with the NBN technician booked for a week after the order was placed. Any interaction with the Telstra NBN connection staff involved little wait times and the only negatives were some confusing emails and an order status that said the order was delayed when it wasn’t.
The NBN technician arrived and didn’t need to switch the physical box attached to the wall outside the house. It was just a question of plugging in the modem, making sure it worked, and telling NBN and Telstra to switch it all on. The technician gave me advice of avoiding being disconnected when making the switch over from the old system to the new and then left, although I had been barraging him with questions about how the rollout was going.
Getting connected was just a question of connecting the wireless router to the NBN modem, switching it on and connecting to the wireless network. As I mentioned above, I use Apple wireless routers and so altered the configuration after things were connected.
And the results?
The download speed dropped from the Telstra non-NBN connection. During the morning, I got about 94 Mbps download. The massive difference was in the upload speed which is now about 38 Mbps. This is a huge bonus over the existing connection which gave 2 Mbps. Upload speeds are never really thought about as a problem until you realise that synchronising with services like iCloud, Google Drive and DropBox all become significantly faster with the NBN connection.
However, in the evening, the speed dropped to between 50 – 70 Mbps download and 23 – 35 Mbps upload. This was something that didn’t happen on the Telstra non-NBN connection which was consistent even in the evenings.
It is still early days and as more people connect in my immediate area, bandwidth may be further affected. Telstra may also ramp up the capacity so that there are not these changes in speed based on the time of day.
Update from NBN Co
In response to the article, a spokesperson from NBN Co clarified the following points:
 With regard to the number of HFC connections per node:
“At present Telstra runs around 1000 premises on an HFC node sharing 1Gbps of capacity. On the nbn we will have only 650 premises per Node and once we reach full DOCSIS 3.1 we will have 10Gbps of capacity available”
 Regarding the speed drop I had experienced in the evenings:
“Your speed drop in the evening is almost certainly CVC related”
We often think of the internet as a levelling, democratising technology – one that extends access to knowledge, education, cultural resources and markets.
But the net also reflects the social and economic divides we find offline.
Released this week, the second report of the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) reports on data covering four years of local online participation across three dimensions: online access, digital ability and affordability. Together, the three dimensions produce a digital inclusion score.
Since 2014, when data was first collected, Australia’s overall digital inclusion score has improved by 3.8 points, from 52.7 to 56.5. In 2016–2017 alone, Australia’s score rose by 2.0 points, from 54.5 to 56.5.
But there is still a “digital divide” between richer and poorer Australians. In 2017, people in our lowest income households (less than A$35,000 per year) have a digital inclusion score of 41.1, which is 27 points lower than those in the highest income households (above A$150,000) at 68.1.
When the three dimensions are considered separately, the measures of access and digital ability show consistent improvement from 2014 to 2017. However, the affordability measure has registered a decline since the 2014 national baseline (despite a slight bump in the past 12 months).
The cost of being connected
Affordability is a key dimension of digital inclusion.
Internet connectivity is important for accessing a wide range of education, government, health and business services. A decline in internet affordability means Australians on fixed or low incomes risk missing out on the benefits of digital technologies, and falling further behind more connected Australians.
The ADII shows that the cost of data — for both fixed and mobile internet — has declined over 2014-2017. These findings are in line with the ACCC’s ongoing monitoring of prices for telecommunications services, which indicate an average decline in real terms of 3.1% since 2006.
However, when we measure affordability, we are not only looking at the cost of data; we are also interested in what proportion of household income is being dedicated to this service.
The affordability problem with the internet is different from other key household services where there are price pressures, such as electricity and water. The residential consumption of energy has grown very slowly over the last decade, but prices have increased sharply.
With the internet, while we are now getting more data for our dollar, our demand for data has dramatically increased.
A recent report from the Commonwealth Bureau of Communications and Arts Research (BCAR) tracks the affordability of phone and internet use since 2006.
The BCAR report finds that, overall, phone and internet affordability has improved since 2006. However, their data also shows that almost all the gains occurred before 2013, and that, since then, affordability has declined or flat-lined. Further, BCAR’s data suggests that the lowest income households in Australia are now spending almost 10% of their incomes on internet and communications services. In contrast, middle income households are spending around 4% of their disposable income on these services, and for wealthier households, the figure is less than 2%.
Increasing reliance on mobile
Some recent and far-reaching changes in our use of technology are evident here: the extent to which the internet has become an integral part of everyday life, the fact that we are spending more time online, and we are doing an increasing range of activities online. In many households, we are also connecting with more devices.
However, the problem of affordability also reflects another recent development that the ADII highlights: one-in-five Australians now only accesses the internet through a mobile device — and we know that mobile data is considerably more expensive than fixed broadband on a per gigabyte basis.
Mobile-only use is correlated with a range of socioeconomic factors. The ADII data shows that people in low income households, those who are not employed, and those with low levels of education, are all more likely to be mobile-only.
Despite the benefits of mobile internet, this group is characterised by a relatively high degree of digital exclusion. In 2017, mobile-only users have an overall ADII score of 42.3, 14.2 points below the national average (56.5).
Digital inclusion is unequal
In the 2017 report, the ACT, followed by Victoria and New South Wales, are the highest scoring states in the overall digital inclusion score, as they were in 2016. Tasmania remains the lowest scoring, followed by South Australia.
The lowest scoring socio-demographic groups in 2017 were households earning less than A$35,000 per year (overall score of 41.1), Australians aged over 65 (overall score of 42.9) and those with a disability (overall score of 47.0).
The ADII uses data derived from Roy Morgan Research’s ongoing, weekly Single Source survey of 50,000 Australians. These are extensive, face-to-face interviews, dealing with information and technology, internet services, attitudes, and demographics.
Calculations for the ADII are based on a sub-sample of 16,000 responses in each 12 month period. The index is a score out of 100: the higher the overall score, the higher the level of digital inclusion. An ADII score of 100 represents a hypothetically perfect level of access, affordability, and digital ability. A score of 65 or over is regarded as high; one below 45 as low.
A focus on improvement
An increasing number of Australians are online, but although the costs of data and devices are falling, there is a risk that issues of affordability will leave some of our most vulnerable behind.
Australians with low levels of income, education and employment are consistently less connected than the rest of the population, with consequences that will become increasingly serious as the digital transformation of government and the economy proceeds.
As an increasing number of essential services and communications move online, the challenge to make the Australian internet more inclusive is becoming more urgent. Affordability is a key area for attention, but so is improving Australians’ digital ability.
The issue of affordability suggests a range of possible areas for useful policy intervention. If we think it important to subsidise essential utilities such as electricity for low-income Australians, we may need to consider whether an allowance for internet access for essential services might also be necessary.
For the large number of lower-income Australians who rely entirely on mobile devices for internet connections, we will also need to consider new ways to support digital inclusion. These could include unmetered access to essential health and social services, and the further development of secure, public access wi-fi.
But how do you know if you’re getting a good deal when you connect to the NBN? How do you know if you’ll be getting the high-speed connection you were promised?
NBN Co is building the infrastructure, with 5.7 million premises now able to connect to the network via fibre, hybrid cable, wireless or satellite. To make that connection though, you have to deal with one of almost 150 listed ISPs.
Customers are ‘confused’
The ACCC’s chairman Rod Sims says we should expect a healthy and competitive sector. But he also says many consumers are “confused about broadband speed advertising” and the industry has been “inconsistent in making clear, accurate information available”.
The Australian market is different to that in the United Kingdom, where the regulator Ofcom actively provides accurate information to consumers to enable a comparison of services.
Australia takes a different approach, relying on protections available via consumer law, and encouraging industry self-regulation to provide the right information to the consumer.
The experience you get really depends on a range of factors relating to transmission quality, reflected as speed of connectivity and latency (delays) in exchanging information across the internet. Key factors include:
how you connect to the internet router in your house (such as by Wi-Fi or ethernet)
the transmission quality from home to the Point of Interconnect (where the ISP’s network connects to the NBN)
transmission quality within the ISP network
transmission quality of the content delivery network.
Measuring the speed of your internet connection
A basic speed test of any internet connection is a measure of the time it takes to transfer a fixed file from a server. The result is usually given in Mbps (Megabits per second).
Many ISPs, such as Telstra, Optus and iiNet, currently provide internet speed tests for their customers.
But speeds measured this way tend to reflect the connectivity from the ISP to the consumer. The speeds you experience in general use can be significantly lower than the “peak” speed advertised by the service provider.
To get a better idea of the real speed of your internet connection you should use another speed testing service, in addition to the one recommended by your ISP.
You should also repeat this measurement at various times of the day and keep detailed notes of any results. Some typical speed tests are:
Currently most ISPs offer a higher speed for downloading and lower speed for uploading. As many users often download the same content, the network can be optimised to take advantage of this and offer higher speeds.
But users also upload unique content, such as photos to social media accounts or files to cloud storage. This does not have the advantage of scale and thus speed of access could be lower.
As cloud-based storage and content-delivery networks – such as Netflix, Foxtel and others – become more highly trafficked, our requirements are changing. Many users now prioritise more symmetrical internet connectivity, with similar download and upload speeds.
How fast should the internet be in Australia?
In Australia, premises with fibre connections to the NBN can theoretically get a peak rate of 100Mbps. In fact, in Australia there are 5 tiers of NBN connections, varying between Tier 1 (12Mbps download/1Mbps upload) to Tier 5 (100Mbps download/40Mbps upload).
But the measured speeds can often be slower than promised by your provider.
There are various reasons for this. It could be that there is a problem between the premises and the NBN network, or there could be delays or oversubscription within the ISP network.
There can be congestion and delays in national and international networks due to inadequate investment by various stakeholders to keep the capacity of the network in scale with the increasing number of customers.
Your experience can also vary across the day and from one service to another. As the number of users varies quite markedly over 24 hours, the state of the network (NBN, ISP network, Content Delivery Network) can change with various levels of congestion.
This leads to different speeds of connectivity at different times when accessing different types of services. For example, web access might be slower given the location of a server, compared with an internet video streaming service that might be optimised to deliver the most popular content within the region.
While many internet service providers advertise a typical speed, in Australia there is no expectation that they should indicate the variability (the range of minimum and maximum speeds).
When so slow is too slow
If you think your NBN connection is too slow and not what you were promised, you should raise the problem with your ISP. If they fail to resolve the issue you should report it to the ACCC.
Australia could have anticipated these speed issues and established a broadband performance reporting framework as part of access to the NBN infrastructure by providers.
The Australian Communications Consumers Action Network (ACCAN) has been crying out for a scheme to monitor the performance of ISPs.
But this hasn’t happened yet. So for now it’s left to you as a consumer to monitor your NBN connection speeds, and report any ongoing problems to the ACCC which hopes to start publishing speed and performance data later this year.
Rod Sims, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumers Commission (ACCC), has signalled that the regulator is going to take a tougher stance against internet service providers like Telstra, Optus and Vocus about misleading consumers about NBN broadband speeds.
In particular, Sims has said that Telstra’s continued use of terms like “Very Fast” and “Super Fast” to describe theoretical, but often unobtainable, broadband speeds needs to stop.
The ACCC has indicated that it is likely to bring court cases before the end of the year if these practices don’t end.
In a speech at the Unwired Revolution Conference, the ACCC talked of the findings of a Australian communications sector review.
In particular, Sims drew attention to the fact that the Australian public were opting for slower speeds on the NBN mainly because ISPs were unwilling to sell faster speeds due to the high costs of the connections (CVC) provided by NBN Co.
The pricing of wholesale connections provided by NBN Co are set in order for them to recoup money that has been invested, in large part by the Australian federal government, and so unless NBN Co is directed to do this differently by the government, the situation is unlikely to change.
Part of the problem is the lack of transparency. Many properties that are being supplied with a Fibre to the Node (FTTN) connection may never be able to get the fastest connection plan of 100 Mbps because they are too far from the node. As the chart below shows, speeds of 100 Mbps can only be achieved if the house is within 500 meters of the node.
A map of properties in Australia highlights that two houses on opposite sides of a road can have very different maximum speeds because of the nodes they are connected to. Telstra has previously admitted that some customers were sold plans for speeds they would never be able to attain at their premises.
In addition to this, there are the number of connections to that node and in particular, the capacity of the ISP to handle peak demand by having spare CVC capacity. There are also other factors that would affect a property’s connection, including the state of the copper wiring between the node and the house.
What the ACCC wants ISPs to do is to tell customers not only what the theoretical maximum speed may be for their property using a given technology, but also what the speeds may drop to during peak demand.
NBN Co has this data and could make it public, but it won’t because it claims that it is the responsibility of the ISPs to tell their own customers. Shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland has filed a freedom of information request for the NBN data of theoretical speeds for each property.
The ACCC is recruiting volunteers to install special hardware and software to monitor speeds and the quality of internet connections in their homes.
The results of a pilot trial reported in 2015 showed that the problems with peak demand and variability of internet speeds existed on pre-NBN internet services like Telstra’s HFC cable service. As the figure below highlights, even fibre to the premises (FTTP) connections from one provider varied dramatically, dropping significantly every evening.
While the data that the ACCC is collecting will be useful and will ultimately assist in highlighting ISPs that are not providing promised services, it would be far better if NBN Co provided this data publicly in the first place.
If the politics and economics of the NBN mean that consumers are going to mostly stick to slower speed plans, many of the proposed economic and social outcomes that were originally envisioned will not be realised.
While it may represent a slightly better situation for some people who currently have a poor connection via ADSL, it is hard to justify the AUD$20.3 billion that has been invested by the Australian government in the network so far.
Examining the rollout of NBN technologies as of December 2016, our preliminary analyses suggest areas of greatest socio-economic disadvantage overlap with regions typically receiving NBN infrastructure of poorer quality.
Comparing NBN technology with inequality
To determine socio-economic disadvantage, we used the Australian Bureau of Statistics’s (ABS) socio-economic indexes for area (SEIFA) and its index of relative socio-economic advantage and disadvantage (IRSD) from 2011.
Across Australia, we found only 29% of areas with a SEIFA decile of one (the lowest-scoring 10% of areas) had fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) – considered the best broadband technology solution available – or fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) connections. So far, around 71% of the NBN technology available in these areas involves inferior options, including hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC), fixed wireless or satellite technologies.
On the other hand, 93% of areas with a SEIFA decile of 10 (the highest-scoring 10% of areas) had FTTP or FTTN.
If we look only at major cities in Australia – where the level of fibre technology is higher overall – areas with the greatest disadvantage, while exceeding similarly disadvantaged areas nationally, still received significantly less FTTP and FTTN: 65% of areas with a SEIFA decile of one had FTTP and FTTN, compared with 94% of areas with a SEIFA decile of 10.
Of course Australia is a large, sparsely populated country, which makes the business case for rolling out fibre difficult in some regions. Nevertheless, inequitable access to NBN technology appears even when controlling for the remoteness of the location.
If we look at outer regional Australia where fibre is less prevalent, the pattern looks worse. Only 12% of the most disadvantaged areas with a SEIFA decile of one received FTTP and FTTN, compared with 88% of the most advantaged outer regional areas with a SEIFA decile of nine.
Receiving FTTP or even FTTN may still be better than receiving HFC, fixed wireless or satellite technologies. While HFC may be able to match maximum speeds of FTTN, this is unlikely to happen during peak times when the increased number of users sharing the same data capacity will slow service considerably. And, similar to FTTN, these technologies provide fewer opportunities to upgrade capacity to meet future demand.
However, given only a limited data set was made publicly available in December 2016 by the NBN company, it is difficult to determine exactly which services are currently installed where. For example, the data set we used does not differentiate between FTTP and the lesser FTTN connection.
It also aggregates some NBN technology into an “other” category, making it impossible to distinguish between HFC and satellite service.
The NBN company offers a “check your address” search for its most up-to-date rollout information including technology type, but was unable to share this information with us in a single, usable data set.
A NBN spokesperson said the network was being rolled out across Australia regardless of any socio-economic mapping.
“Determining the sequence is a complex process of weighing up factors including the location of construction resources, current service levels, existing broadband infrastructure, growth forecasts and proximity to nbn infrastructure such as the transit network,” she said in an email. “Only 8 per cent of premises in Australia are not in the fixed-line footprint.”
Internet access and social inequity
A faster internet connection is increasingly central to people’s social connections, education opportunities, employment prospects and ability to access services.
This was raised in a 2011 report by the parliamentary Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications. It emphasised the potential role of the NBN in enhancing greater equity in digital access to services in regional and rural areas.
The Committee heard that, due to the ‘digital divide’, many of the Australians who could benefit the most from broadband currently have the lowest levels of online participation … The extent of accompanying measures implemented by governments will determine whether the NBN narrows or widens this digital divide.
Previous research has also found that people from lower socioeconomic groups are already restricted in their use of digital information and communication technologies. This can limit their access to a range of social determinants of health.
When populations already facing disadvantage receive poorer quality digital infrastructure, those with the greatest need will continue to slip farther behind.
Equity must be at the forefront of the NBN company’s considerations as it continues to roll out across Australia. Further entrenching social inequities through digital infrastructure is not the NBN anyone dreamed of.
Note: The “contention rate” section of the NBN technology infographic on this story has been updated to improve clarity.
It is perhaps time to remind ourselves of the ups and downs of the project that was once announced as a dream national infrastructure project for the 21st century. This requires a ten-year journey back in time, before we can figure out what needs to be done next.
The NBN company was announced in April 2009 to provide terrestrial fibre network coverage for 93% of Australian premises by the end of 2020. Fixed wireless and satellite coverage would serve the remaining 7%.
Looking back, it’s hard to deny the influence the NBN has had on Australian politics. Perhaps the peak influence was when three independent MPs cited the NBN as one of the key reasons why they supported a Labor government over the Coalition when the 2010 federal election produced a hung parliament.
The early NBN rollout experienced significant delays. This attracted a great deal of “overwhelmingly negative” media coverage. Public opinion polls reflected growing dissatisfaction with the national project.
This dissatisfaction and the September 2013 federal election result changed the fate of the NBN. In 2013, the new Coalition government suspended the first stage of the large-scale fibre-to-premises NBN rollout to reassess the scale of the project.
In 2014, the government announced that the NBN rollout would change from a primarily fibre-to-premises model to a multi-technology-mix model. The technology to be used would be determined on an area-by-area basis.
Delays continue in the construction of the Coalition’s NBN. What can only be described as a downgrade of the original national project is now seriously over budget.
In September 2016, a joint standing committee of parliament was established to inquire into the NBN rollout. The inquiry is continuing.
The bleak status quo only gets worse when the on-the-ground reality of the NBN rollout is considered. While fibre-to-premises rollout is supposed to be limited in the Coalition’s NBN, disturbing examples of misconduct in the NBN installations are highly concerning.
The image below shows one example of many in which heritage-listed buildings (in this case also public housing) are disrespected to the point that suggests an absolute lack of communication between NBN contractors, local government, or heritage agencies.
Who misses out?
In the Coalition’s NBN, the provision of universal high-speed capacity – as envisioned in the original NBN – has been transformed into a patchwork of final speeds and different quality of service. This leads to an important question about equity. It also puts the 60 early rollout locations in the spotlight as these could potentially be the only ones across the nation that enjoy fibre-to-premises NBN.
My new research points to the political motivations in the selection of these lucky 60 sites. Voting patterns in these locations were compared with all electorates in the federal elections from 2007 to 2013. The analysis shows the selections were skewed for potential political gain.
ALP-held seats were the main beneficiaries of the early NBN rollout; safe Coalition-held seats were the least likely to receive the infrastructure.
Tony Windsor, one of the three influential independent MPs in 2010, famously said of the NBN:
It is convenient to blame one political party for the state of chaos that the NBN is in right now. However, politicisation of the project has been part of the problem since day one.
Instead, we call for telecommunication infrastructure to be considered for what it really is: the backbone of the fast-growing digital economy; the foundation for innovation in the age of smart cities and big data; and a key pillar of social equity and spatial justice.
Policing the leaks of NBN data is not going to clean up the mess. Quite the opposite: the Australian government needs to share the NBN data, so the exact nature and scale of the problems can be determined. Only then can we talk about finding a way forward in this long journey.