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The NBN rolls on, but Aussies still face a tech-knowledge gap

Commentary: While some of us are busy talking about gigabit speeds, many Australians still don't have a basic understanding of the NBN. How did they get left so far behind?


Last week, I was reminded what it's like to live outside the technology bubble.

I was talking about the week's tech news on ABC radio, when a listener, Anne, rang in to ask about the NBN.

Not, "What upload speeds will I get?" or, "When will we have gigabit internet?" Something much simpler.

"Does anyone know if we have to be connected to the NBN?" she asked.

I explained that the NBN would soon be providing her landline phone connection and that yes, she'd eventually have to be connected. But the question stuck with me.

Australia, we know the NBN is rolling out. Hell, we've been talking about it for close to the past decade. But when it actually gets to our neck of the woods, the majority of regular Australians don't know what on earth to do to get connected.

According to new Galaxy Research out today, three quarters (74 percent) of Australians yet to be connected to the NBN feel like they don't know enough to transition to the new technology.

Worse, almost one quarter of unconnected Aussies say they "have no idea about any of it."

The research, commissioned by finance comparison site iSelect, is just one data point. But as more premises (close to 4.1 million) become ready for service, it tells us that Anne is far from alone in her confusion.

Most of us understand the technical intricacies behind Australia's biggest technology infrastructure rollout. But what about the average Australian who just wants to make sure they don't get left behind?

Yesterday NBN released a bunch of useful graphics to explain the NBN rollout to these Australians. (Yes, I just used "NBN" to refer to the company behind the national broadband network and the actual network itself. But ever since the company changed its name from NBN Co., language is dead, acronyms are meaningless and this is the world we live in.)

NBN told CNET, "We have a responsibility to help the public understand the factors that impact the internet service they receive." And the graphics are helpful. They explain speed tiers and why you might get throttled if your ISP doesn't fork out for enough capacity on the network.

NBN is now explaining the rollout of the national broadband network with simple graphics.


But should we have seen more of this basic education earlier on?

We've had sexy ads showing Broadband Bachie Tim Robards using the NBN to get shredded. We've had glossy "Gen NBN" ads that sell us on our hyper-connected future, when Australians are using " Minority Report" screens and playing football with holograms, and petty squabbles about NBN's "multi-technology mix" are forgotten when you take your next protein pill.

But what about here and now? What about the Annes of the world, trying to connect to the NBN so they don't lose their landline? They're struggling to work it all out.

And they're not alone. In March, we learned that no one really has an accurate grasp of how many complaints are made about the NBN because there are so many stakeholders involved and complaints from individual premises are only recorded once, no matter how many separate complaints are made about the service.

Alongside yesterday's pretty graphics, NBN also released a graphic to explain the link between wholesale and retail technology providers -- a flow chart that many Australians could struggle to understand.

NBN explains the relationship between wholesaler and retailer.


Many Aussies are rightly sick of the politics and posturing around the NBN. They're being told by none other than the New York Times that Australia has screwed up its big chance to lead the world in internet speeds, and that our next generation of bright minds is using the postal system as a speedier alternative to their computers.

Regardless, this over-politicised and copper-shackled network is coming, but many of us don't know enough to even get connected.

Here's what I love about tech: It's like an awesome train rocketing us to a future where anything is possible and football-holograms are commonplace. But we can't just have technophiles and early adopters on that train. We need to get everyone on board. And when people are worried or confused, we need to make it easy for them to jump along for the ride.

In a statement to CNET, an NBN spokesperson said, "We have always had communication explaining the network and what needs to be done to connect to consumers.

"The aim of this campaign is to reduce confusion regarding the different roles NBN and the retailers play in building and delivering broadband services and also help people better understand speed as the rollout reaches halfway."

In addition, NBN said its current national advertising campaign "explains how to make informed choices about retail plans based on wholesale speed tiers when ordering services which run over the NBN network from retailers."

First published May 16, 4:27 p.m. AEST.

Updated May 17 at 10:40 a.m.: Adds comment from NBN.

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