Beyond the Sandstone Curtain: Country victims of a stalled NBN
As towns across Australia wait their turn for the NBN rollout, one town is stuck in broadband no man's land and says it has "disappeared off the map".
Towns across central-western New South Wales have a phrase to describe their disconnect from Sydney. Once you leave the state's decision-making centre and head west over the Great Dividing Range, you've crossed the Sandstone Curtain. And beyond that geographical and figurative divide, there are plenty of towns that feel like they have been forgotten.
Three and a half hours from Sydney, Mudgee is a regional hub in central-western NSW, with dozens of wineries that keep tourism flourishing and three major coal mining operations that contribute to growth, including new housing developments.
But despite its size and position, locals say the town has all but "disappeared off the map" thanks to sub-par broadband infrastructure and a stalled NBN rollout.
When we started researching this article in May, new residents to Mudgee were unable to connect to fast internet because there were no ADSL2 ports available in the town. Those living in newly-developed areas had the choice of a regular ADSL connection or resorting to more desperate measures to stay connected.
Pip Goldsmith from Mudgee's Mid-Western Regional Council told CNET that a lack of infrastructure left residents with little recourse.
"The only real option they've got is wireless or a dongle that they plug into their laptop, which is completely useless," she said. "Once it gets to about 4 o'clock in the afternoon when kids get home from school and everyone's online, the capacity is just not there."
According to Goldsmith, the internet issues are "limiting the growth that can happen" in Mudgee and seriously frustrating townsfolk in the process.
"It's really hard for us to try and encourage new businesses to town when they can't have internet," she said. "It's not like we're in the outback. We're three and a half hours from Sydney."
Telstra, country wide
Some have blamed Mudgee's internet issues on Telstra -- the retail and wholesale provider of broadband infrastructure until the NBN is fully rolled out in the town. Goldsmith says that, until recently, the provider wasn't seen to be investing in infrastructure because it was "waiting to see what's happening with the NBN".
However, on June 16, 2014, Telstra opened 170 more ADSL2 ports to provide Mudgee residents with internet access.
"We've listened to Mudgee residents who have been asking us for this and were very pleased to announce the new infrastructure," announced Telstra Country Wide area general manager for Western NSW, Scott Curtin. "We're confident this upgrade to existing infrastructure will help us meet the increasing customer demand."
Speaking to CNET, Curtin said the town would continue to be serviced by existing ADSL ports, but that residents now connected to ADSL2 ports would be "by far the majority". He also defended the timing of the new port rollout, saying Telstra was communicating with council as early as April, and it had worked to make the ports available a month earlier than originally planned.
"I admit there would be times when there wouldn't be access to ADSL in certain pockets for a certain amount of time," he said. "In this particular case, Mudgee did still have ADSL connectivity available [before the ports were made available] -- obviously not across the whole of the town, but it had some connectivity. And in the meantime, that's when we were working through the business cases to get more ports."
As the manager responsible for an area spanning from Lithgow to Broken Hill, Curtin said Telstra was constantly monitoring capacity and demand in a number of towns across NSW, and balancing the needs of a number of regions.
But as far as Mudgee is concerned, he said Telstra would "always monitor" port availability and the company had "pencilled in" another review of the town's needs at "the beginning of next year".
Curtin says he is "not aware of anybody en masse that can't have access to ADSL unless they're in a new housing development" -- a sub-set of the community which is covered by NBN's greenfields development program. Despite this, not everyone is satisfied.
"Even though there might be a few more connections available, bandwidth is exactly the same and the infrastructure is exactly the same," Pip Goldsmith told CNET after Telstra's June 16 announcement.
"We're certainly still receiving feedback from residents that there is a demand that is not being met. Even in council we're experiencing slow speeds daily and we have trouble uploading large documents. Quite often it is quicker to put it on a USB that can actually be posted because it's just too hard to do things online.
For one resident, even ADSL2 isn't up to scratch. Ben Lynch is the creative director of Mayo Magpie -- a Mudgee-based digital agency that produces websites, software applications and video for businesses from across the region. As a Mudgee resident who admits he spends more time on the internet than he sees the sun, Lynch says staying connected in Mudgee is a massive problem.
"My experience with internet is not a positive one," he said. "The speeds are highly variable, but can never be described as fast. My office is one block from the exchange -- I could hardly be better positioned.
"I experience many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small delays completing tasks every day which stack up to massive amounts of lost productivity."
Lynch says he has lost contracts because of the "lack of reliable infrastructure". He had to turn down a request to stream the testimony of a local Mudgee doctor for a murder trial in Dublin, and describes a recent attempt to upload 2.3GB of files which took 17 hours to complete.
"It would literally have been faster to deliver the file by post, taxi or carrier pigeon," he said.
Lynch says the Mudgee region is "being held to digital ransom" as businesses lack the infrastructure and technological tools to innovate in Australia's new digital economy. He is not alone -- Lynch has joined the call to arms of Mudgee's deputy mayor Paul Cavalier in a bid to set up a technology park in the town.
For Cavalier, getting better broadband access for Mudgee is not just an issue of civic duty, but also a personal battle. Alongside his council role, Cavalier runs Print Storm -- a Mudgee-based printing and graphic design company that relies heavily on the cloud to communicate with clients and remote employees in Sydney and Newcastle.
"We recently moved our business to Mudgee from Gulgong and had to wait over two months for a connection with Telstra due to a shortfall in available ADSL ports. After finally getting connected, we only got access to ADSL, not ADSL2.
"Our whole business is cloud based, and we use various pieces of cloud based software to manage printing jobs and to store all of our client files.
"In Gulgong we had ADSL2, with a fairly solid 20Mbps connection. Of all of the issues that I thought would come up when moving our business, not being able to get access to broadband definitely never crossed my mind!"
Like Lynch, Cavalier has had his fair share of frustration with broadband access. But also like Lynch, his greatest frustration is not with Telstra, but with the NBN.
"NBN Co has vanished"
Last year's Federal election saw a shift in NBN policy, and renewed debate around FttN versus FttP. But regardless of how it's delivered, residents in Mudgee just want to know whether NBN infrastructure of any kind will be completed in the town.
"Until the election of September 2013, there was an impression around town that real progress was being made on the NBN," said Lynch. "You could see [NBN contractors] working in the pits, run into them in local cafes on breaks and their trucks made their way about town for over a year.
"Since the election, NBN Co has vanished."
In 2013, local paper The Mudgee Guardian (affectionately known as the Mud Guard) ran a number of stories on NBN Co's activities in the town.
In July 2013, the paper ran pictures of NBN Co workers (captioned "contractors install National Broadband Network infrastructure") and quoted a February 2014 completion. Installation was "on track in Mudgee" according to NBN Co community account manager Ian Scott.
But Mudgee's deputy mayor said NBN Co's absence is now noticeable.
"It's quite frustrating to note that Mudgee has been removed from the NBN Co list of towns receiving NBN connectivity, when a huge amount of work has already been carried out," said Paul Cavalier. "From what we can gather, the project was at least 75 percent complete before it was pulled from the rollout map."
Speaking about its regional rollout, NBN Co told CNET "every community is important" and its goal was "to bring better broadband to Australians including residents of Mudgee and surrounds".
"Due to the nature and size of our country, NBN is being rolled out in stages using a mix of technologies," a spokesperson said. "When the NBN comes to the Mudgee area, we will inform the community and update the rollout maps on the NBN Co website."
However, when pressed on specific points about the NBN rollout in Mudgee, including the timeline for completion and the status of existing works in the town, NBN Co declined to provide further comment.
Residents say they have a friendly force on their side in the form of their local member, Mark Coulton, Nationals MP and Federal Member for Parkes.
According to Goldsmith, Coulton has been "doing all he can" to advocate for the town's needs, especially now that the townspeople feel they have "disappeared off the map" when it comes to the NBN.
With complaints mounting about Telstra ADSL2 ports and the radio silence on the rollout of the NBN, Coulton told CNET he has been working with both Telstra and NBN Co to ensure services are "delivered as soon as possible to Mudgee" to meet demand.
"This is a key component of the Coalition's Policy to deliver broadband services in the areas where the service is worst rather than going to areas where there is an existing service," he said.
"I have encouraged Telstra to meet with developers in Mudgee in relation to the telecoms rollout in the new regions," he added.
Regarding Telstra, he said the earlier-than-scheduled opening of ADSL2 ports showed "commitment to addressing the issue," while his main concern with the NBN was that "the rollout continues to reach as many people across my electorate as possible."
With the Parkes electorate covering more than 30 percent of NSW, Coulton also noted that the concerns of one town need to be viewed within a wider context -- according to Coulton, much of the electorate does not have mobile phone coverage and this is a matter that causes greater concern than issues of internet access.
This is a valid point. With parts of regional and remote Australia struggling to get any kind of telecommunications access, a large town like Mudgee -- built up as it is with mobile, ADSL and ADSL2 infrastructure -- is reasonably well connected by comparison.
But as politicians and experts from across the industry and the political spectrum talk up Australia's bright digital future, and well-connected areas surge ahead into this brave new world, are we giving the whole country a ticket to come along for the ride?
Aside from the need for speed that individuals feel so keenly, there is also a major missed business opportunity for smaller towns.
When a town has the creative capital, the talent and the 'get it done' attitude that the outback is famous for, can business truly innovate and keep up with big city competitors if it can't access the basics of connectivity?
"As Sydney's weekend darling, Mudgee is well placed to benefit from better internet infrastructure," said Lynch. "And in an age where software and games can be developed anywhere that can communicate well, we could yet digitally diversify. We can produce more than just coal."