A government inquiry into the NBN rollout is the perfect opportunity for urgent action for rural and regional Australians.
The rollout has been poorly designed and implemented, and fraught with technical problems. The impact on regional areas has been significant.Cathy McGowan
Nowhere is the gulf between rural and city life more apparent than in the digital divide.
More people contact my office about telecommunications – mostly NBN and mobile – than any other single issue.
I have spoken frequently on the issue in Parliament and made many representations to Telstra and NBN Co on the electorate’s behalf.
We are, frankly, fed up.
The rollout has been poorly designed and implemented, and fraught with technical problems.
The impact on regional areas has been significant.
The bolt-on solutions of fixed wireless and satellite connectivity mean that regional customers frequently receive a second rate service compared to urban customers.
Many who make contact with me are running a business from home or have students who need connectivity for study.
Some have been told to spend thousands on equipment to boost their internet connection. All are incredibly frustrated.
SkyMuster satellite customers report inequitable services, with higher prices and lower data allowances than other technologies.
I’m told that fixed wireless is only slightly less problematic with a haphazard delivery schedule and poor performance.
People have reported having copper wire phone service disconnected to use the Voice Over Internet Protocol, only to be unable to access telephone services during frequent internet outages.
Other complaints include customers spending hours on hold, service providers being unable to assist, not being able to contact NBN Co directly about non-contract issues, service people not turning up on time, and satellite services dropping out when it rains.
My office refers all such issues and concerns to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman but it shouldn’t be like this.
Add mobile blackspots into the mix and the result is an infuriating data desert.
This is not a simple inconvenience.
Telecommunications are key to regional economies.
Agriculture is the next great Australian boom industry, but it will not reach its potential without the necessary telecommunications potential.
For local businesses, it means being able to expand operations and markets.
For families, it means access to online services.
For communities, it means safety and participation.
A Regional Telecommunications Review was held in 2015 and the recommendations are yet to be implemented.
People are still waiting for action.
Universal service obligations need to be modernised to ensure that basic telephone services and a level playing field for internet services are guaranteed to all customers regardless of geography.
I called for this action in Parliament in November 2016.
I will continue to advocate for the feedback from regional Australia to be acted upon.
What’s the solution?
As with most policy affecting rural and regional Australia, the main issue is that the solutions are designed around population density, and regional Australia is treated like an add-on. The service then becomes costly and inadequate.
This can be rectified.
There is no shortage of ideas in regional Australia.
People don’t just ring up to complain – they come armed with knowledge and practical expertise.
The Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network was set up to work with communities to find the solutions.
The committee came about through people speaking up about the problems with the NBN, and it is a credit to rural communities who have taken effective action.
The committee, of which I am a member, is currently holding an inquiry to review the rollout.
This is a chance for everyone to have input. There is information on how to make a submission to this inquiry at www.cathymcgowan.com.au.
The first principle of a national infrastructure project, such as the NBN, must be that it benefits all Australians.
Internet services in a digital economy are no different.
Wherever you are in rural Australia you should have access to an effective broadband internet service.
The productivity gains from listening to regional Australians of delivering high quality telecommunications services are great.
The consequences for failing to do so are significant.