NBNCo has heralded its broadband network rollout in regional Australia as “on the home stretch” with access to nearly all homes and businesses out of major urban areas currently in design, construction or complete.
As of June, access provision to 99.92 per cent of premises is at the design stage or beyond, although the figure doesn’t include off shore islands, “complex rural sites” and a number of government-run sites.
“We have seen a massive improvement in regional internet access, with our wholesale broadband services offering more competition, faster speeds and even giving some Australians internet access for the first time,” said NBN CEO Bill Morrow, who in April announced his departure from the organisation.
“Our research shows that this connectivity revolution is spurring rapid growth in the digital economy and regional businesses, which may lead to further migration away from cities to regional hotspots. For example, we have seen Newcastle diversify itself from a focus on steel to tech start-ups and similar pivots in mining towns like Ballarat,” he added.
The rollout of the NBN in rural areas is currently the subject of an inquiry by the Senate’s Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network.
Despite the rollout’s claimed progress, NSW Farmers, in its submission to the inquiry said that the NBN in regional New South Wales: “Doesn't seem like the information super highway, more like the potholed gravel roads we are used to in the country.”
User advocacy group Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia (BIRRR), said in its submission that it was concerned the NBN’s Sky Muster satellite services – upon which large swathes of regional areas rely for connectivity – were too restrictive in terms of latency and data limits.
“These limitations mean the NBN roll out is not delivering for rural, regional and remote business, health, education and other high bandwidth, low latency needs,” BIRRR said.
NBN figures show that as of the end of December last year, there were 83,400 households connected via the Sky Muster service. More than 400,000 homes and businesses sit in the Sky Muster footprint.
The maximum data usage for households using the service is due to be increased (from 150GB to 300GB, and from 75GB to 150GB in peak periods).
BIRRR also criticised the congestion problems of fixed wireless services, saying they were caused by “lack of adequate infrastructure in place before the towers become active, no enforcement of the NBN fixed wireless Fair Use Policy and overselling connections on some fixed wireless towers”.
A proposed 100 megabits per second (Mbps) fixed wireless service was killed off earlier this year.
NBN said the fact it had prioritised the rollout in regional areas meant the ‘digital divide’ between city and bush was shrinking.
According to a report it commissioned by AlphaBeta, Australia now ranks seventeenth among OECD countries (up from twenty-ninth in 2012) in terms of equality of internet speed and proportion of people without internet access.
The report projects that by 2021 the country will jump from the bottom ten to the top ten ranking of OECD countries on this measure. However, that depends on the unlikely scenario that all other OECD countries hold constant at their 2016 figures.
Today’s announcement was welcomed by a number of farmer advocacy associations.
“This is very welcome news for Australia’s farmers. It has been a long time coming and we have been waiting for the digital divide to close," said Mark Harvey-Sutton, policy director of the National Farmers’ Federation and Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition.
"There is huge potential for the agriculture sector coming from increased connectivity as well as improved lifestyle benefits like running a business and keeping your kids at home so they can do their education in a more efficient manner."
“I think it is exciting we are at the stage where nearly everyone can access high-speed broadband and that we are seeing the evidence that it is a critical productivity increase,” said Georgie Somerset, south east regional director of Queensland beef, sheep and grain producers group AgForce.