Frustrating digital divide of rural NBN issues revealed at parliamentary inquiry in Wodonga

BIG NAMES: Indi MP Cathy McGowan and Senator Pauline Hanson were among the politicians to question Border witnesses about their NBN issues. Pictures: MARK JESSER
BIG NAMES: Indi MP Cathy McGowan and Senator Pauline Hanson were among the politicians to question Border witnesses about their NBN issues. Pictures: MARK JESSER

The Border could be divided into “have and have nots” by the luck of living or working in an area able to access the NBN, Albury Council has warned.

Economic development team leader Andrew Cottrill had a series of complaints and horror stories from people in the city to pass onto the parliamentary inquiry into the NBN rollout.

He said those outside the main NBN areas either had to make do with the slower speeds of satellite services or, in the case of big business, had no choice but to pay for access themselves.

“It’s taken very significant funds to backhaul the NBN, which will ultimately see about 1000 jobs delivered over the next 10 years or so,” Mr Cottrill said.

“The rollout of the NBN has been very frustrating, but the take up has been very high.”

The former Telstra employee agreed with a suggestion the NBN could make the “digital divide” worse because regional areas would be locked into limited capacity.

“There’s going to be haves and have nots and if you’re on the fringe of the wireless network with the satellite - speeds half a kilometre closer would provide a much better service,” he said.

“Great broadband speeds and great broadband services are critical to regional areas in term of tyranny of distance, access to services.”

Mr Cottrill also told the inquiry how 116 Albury homes could not access the NBN because “nodes have been place too sparsely or not close enough to the premises to provide a reliable service”.

The eight-member committee at Thursday’s inquiry hearing in Wodonga included chair Lucy Wicks, Farrer MP Sussan Ley, Indi MP Cathy McGowan and Senator Pauline Hanson.

ATTRACTING INVESTORS: Albury Council economic development team leader Andrew Cottrill said businesses considering a move to the city, always questioned internet speeds.

ATTRACTING INVESTORS: Albury Council economic development team leader Andrew Cottrill said businesses considering a move to the city, always questioned internet speeds.

Businesses left to struggle

Albury Northside Chamber of Commerce business manager Kathie Heyman said only about 30 per cent of the group’s members had connected to the NBN and were not interested unless forced.

“When we do get members in to talk about the NBN, it’s always about the challenges, not the opportunities,” she said.

“There are positives – some businesses have come out the other end, but then the speeds are below the expectation.

“No one’s got a story where they haven’t struggled.”

Asked by MP Josh Smith where regional Australia’s internet would be in about 25 years, ANCC board director Dan Fewster said “lagging considerably, realistically”.

“The speeds that you’re getting on 4G right now are probably better than most NBN at home and that’s kind of scary with 5G just around the corner and ground technology so far behind,” he said.

“You’d be better off just connecting your mobile phone to your computer.”

IMPORTANT EVIDENCE: The eight-member committee listened to witnesses appearing at The Cube in Wodonga on Thursday, in one of just two public hearings held in Victoria.

IMPORTANT EVIDENCE: The eight-member committee listened to witnesses appearing at The Cube in Wodonga on Thursday, in one of just two public hearings held in Victoria.

Time for solutions, not passing the buck

A “Mexican standoff” between the NBN and Telstra over who is responsible for internet issues has left customers feeling frustrated.

Albury Northside Chamber of Commerce told Thursday’s inquiry hearing its members were regular sent back and forth between the companies with complaints, and Albury Council said Telstra had stopped providing copper wires when the NBN had started rollouts in new estates.

“It sounds like there is a Mexican stand off between Telstra and NBN at newly-developed sites,” Senator Pauline Hanson said.

“If the NBN is going to have fibre to the node, really then you would think it would be Telstra’s responsibility to put it into copper, then into the premises.”

Indi MP Cathy McGowan told the inquiry someone had to “take the leadership role to stop the buck-passing”. “Sussan (Ley)’s and my office, we’ve become a bit of a broker – it’s not our job, but we’re happy to do it because no one else is doing it,” she said.

She told The Border Mail one of the first actions of the committee could be finding a real way to sort out the problems, calling on NBN and Telstra to deliver on their promises.

“Too much time is being wasted on these breakdowns in communication and it just seems to me there are really obvious problems that should be sorted out quickly and cleverly at the regional level,” Ms McGowan said.

“There’s a lot of confusion in the community about what exactly is going on.”

Similar issues were heard at Wednesday’s hearing in Melbourne.

“The lovely thing about the hearings is you get the problems, but you also get the really creative people who have worked out a really good recommendation,” Ms McGowan said.

HEARING THE ISSUES: Farrer MP Sussan Ley, pictured with Senator Jane Hume and committee chair Lucy Wicks, said the NBN rollout had been difficult, but the end product could “empower” businesses and personal lives.

HEARING THE ISSUES: Farrer MP Sussan Ley, pictured with Senator Jane Hume and committee chair Lucy Wicks, said the NBN rollout had been difficult, but the end product could “empower” businesses and personal lives.

NBN can empower homes and businesses

Farrer MP Sussan Ley said the inquiry was a positive way for cities both sides of the border to improve communications.

She told The Border Mail she understood the NBN rollout had been difficult, but defended the end product as being able to “empower” businesses and personal lives.

“Once the NBN arrives at your home or business, we’re hearing a lot of positives,” she said.

“Naturally, at a forum like this, we’re going to hear problems, I want to hear the problems … but in working with the retail service provider, the NBN and Albury City, we’re able to solve a lot of the problems and people are very happy once the service is in.”

Mr Cottrill had told the hearing he would have preferred an NBN with the “best-possible technology” of fibre to the premises, rather than the node.

“Fibre to the premises is possible if you, as a business, are willing to pay for it,” she said.

“The purpose of this government’s rollout was to get the NBN far and wide with an option that suits nearly everyone.

“If you want to upgrade then sure, you should be able to do that, and you’ll need to pay for it.”