NBN won't close broadband gap, say advocates for rural communities

Even with the National Broadband Network (NBN), more work remains to bridge the digital divide between regional and metropolitan areas in Australia, said advocates for rural communities at the the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) conference in Sydney.

The NBN will help address the rural/urban digital divide but it won’t close the broadband gap, the advocates said.

“The rollout of the NBN and the increasing importance of the digital economy present both opportunities and challenges for regional and remote Australia,” said the independent Regional Telecommunications Review Committee (RTRC) chair, Rosemary Sinclair. “There continues to be a risk that people in regional Australia are left further behind unless we really stay on the case.”

The government should not overlook expanding the reach of mobile services as it seeks to upgrade wireless speeds, Sinclair said. “There is a huge difference between extending coverage and upgrading capacity, and what people in regional communities are interested in is extending coverage,” she said.

Communications minister Stephen Conroy recently said the government is implementing recommendations from the RTRC’s 2011/12 report on improving broadband in rural Australia.

Sinclair said it’s not time for rural advocates to back down. “Please do not wait until the next committee is formed in three years time … Keep going with the work. We wrote the report to help you do that.”

Rural businesses suffer from poor data speeds and poor mobile coverage, said Anittel executive chairman, Peter Kazacos. Annitel is an IT telecom provider serving small and medum-sized busineses in regional areas. Many businesses are in areas that are not prioritised for NBN deployment, he said. That has caused “a lot of frustration in the businesses that we deal with,” he said. “If we don’t connect our businesses in regional Australia to broadband quicker, we may not have employment for a lot of these businesses in those locations.”

There are about 6.9 million people in rural Australia and 300,000 are employed in the agriculture industry, said NSW Farmers Association committee member, Anthony Gibson. “However, basic communications infrastructure is still a requirement which is lacking for many farmers,” he said. Farmers seek better mobile, broadband and landline coverage comparable to what’s available in urban areas, he said.

The NBN won’t close the broadband gap for indigenous communities, even if it does bring service to previously unserved areas, said Indigenous Remote Communications Association interim manager, Daniel Featherstone. “We love the NBN, [but] unfortunately most of the people we represent aren’t going to get [a fibre] level of connectivity,” he said.

Satellite provides 12Mbps down and 1Mbps, sufficient for basic Internet functions, “but there will be a lot of applications and types of delivery of high-speed, two-way or symmetrical applications that won’t be able to operate,” Featherstone said. A 1Mbps upload speed assumes the end user “is only a consumer and not a producer.”

Besides lacking broadband in regional homes, indigenous peoples also face language and digital literacy barriers when accessing content on the Web. Furthermore, due to low income not all indigenous peoples living rural areas can afford broadband, she said. Featherstone said there is not enough content on the Web relevant to indigenous peoples that would encourage them to want to adopt broadband. The government has said it is considering how to expand the indigenous communications program to address these issues, noted Sinclair.

Partnerships between local and federal government can help drive broadband deployment and adoption in regional areas, said Kiama, NSW, Mayor Sandra McCarthy. By developed its own broadband strategy, Kiama won funding from the federal government, she said.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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