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​The tyranny of distance: Building better broadband for the Australian outback

Australia is embarking on a massive project to roll out a National Broadband Network that provides high-speed internet for the whole country. But as cities get more access to new technology, the country's remote indigenous communities risk becoming the "forgotten part of Australia".

Noel Heenan at the National Remote Indigenous Media Festival. Photo by Daniel Featherstone, copyright Indigenous Remote Communications Association

Australia is a country of contrasts -- 85 percent of the population lives within 50 kilometres (31 miles) of the coast, but move into the country's arid centre and you'll find less than 0.1 people per square kilometre.

This makes for a vast and varied landscape, but also presents a real challenge for delivering telecommunications infrastructure to all Australians, but a new government-run project is attempting to do just that.

The Federal Government is currently rolling out a National Broadband Network designed to provide high-speed internet access to every Australian, setting up the government-owned NBN Co corporation to build and deliver the network. Regardless of where they live, Australians are set to be connected like never before through a combination of fibre, fixed wireless and Satellite technologies.

When NBN Co released its latest map showing areas slated for fibre rollout across the country, the conversation started once again: Australians celebrated the fact that they would soon have access to faster internet speeds, or lamented that their neighbourhood had once again just missed out.

But what about those people outside Australia's cities and regional centres? What does a conversation about internet access sound like when it's taking place in the country's most remote towns and communities?

Last month, researchers, industry experts and media advocates for Australia's regional and remote populations gathered in the centre of Australia in Alice Springs for the third annual Broadband for the Bush Forum. The result of the two-day forum was a list of recommendations for government and business, targeted at improving the quality of communications in the outback for some of the most geographically-isolated people in the world.

Among the delegates at the Forum was Daniel Featherstone, general manager of the Indigenous Remote Communications Association. When it comes to isolation, Featherstone has experienced the tyranny of distance first hand.

After living in places like the indigenous Irrunytju community, just inside Western Australia's tri-state border and 800 kilometres from the closest support town, Featherstone is now the head of an association that speaks for remote indigenous communities as small as 50 people. When we speak, he has just jumped out of a helicopter from Darnley Island in the Torres Strait -- a place only accessible by air or boat.

According to Featherstone, places like the Irrunytju community and Darnley Island are typical of the regions he advocates for -- small, very remote and served by telecommunications infrastructure that is "completely ad hoc".

"A lot of communities still can't get home phones," said Featherstone. "There will be communities of a couple of hundred people that still rely on public phones as their primary phone service.

"The reality is that telecommunications have been privatised and it's entirely on a commercial basis now, particularly mobile. In terms of viability, the mining areas are the areas that get priority, and areas where there's other large economic development. Where mobile is commercially viable, it's saturated."

Telstra, Australia's largest telecommunications provider which services 99.3 percent of the population with its mobile networks, says it has invested significantly in providing mobile coverage for many indigenous communities across Australia. This includes a recent $10 million co-investment with the Northern Territory government to deliver ADSL and mobile coverage to remote parts of the territory, as well as the rollout of 113 mobile sites in Western Australia to extend coverage in "remote towns and connecting highways".

In addition, Telstra says it provides coverage for "thousands of kilometres of highways and railways that no other carrier covers" while it expects the Federal Government's Mobile Black Spot program will extend coverage into "areas which would otherwise be uneconomic to service".

Featherstone is hopeful for this $100 million project, but fears that it will focus on larger regional areas and highways and that "none of that money will end up in remote indigenous communities".

Satellite Towns

Stephen 'Baamba' Albert at the National Remote Indigenous Media Festival. Photo by Liam Campbell, copyright IRCA

Beyond phone calls, Australia's remote communities will soon have an opportunity to be connected like never before thanks to the nationwide rollout of the NBN. But while the talk in cities and regional centres has been focused on rolling out fixed-line fibre, 8 percent of Australian premises will still be outside this rollout by 2021.

For these households and businesses in remote Australia, the NBN will be delivered, in part, by satellite. In the short term, an Interim Satellite Service is doing the job of connecting premises, with NBN Co's Long Term Satellite Service launching next year to provide "high-speed broadband coverage" across the mainland and for Australia's outlying islands.

In a recent review of its fixed wireless and satellite services, NBN Co found that demand for broadband in the bush was three times its original forecasts. However, NBN Co has committed to delivering services to these houses and businesses, saying that "by increasing the number of fixed wireless services and implementing a new approach to satellite, more people living in rural, regional and remote Australia are able to access the NBN faster".

According to NBN Co, "this is particularly good news for the more than one million Australians who live outside NBN Co's fixed line footprint, who prior to the NBN typically have had poorer access to quality internet services".

But while Featherstone said slated speeds of 25Mbps for downloads and 5Mbps for uploads could be "a game changer" for the bush, he described the satellite service as a "one-size-fits all model" that has its own issues, including issues of latency that affect some high-end applications (such as video conferencing).

"They're basing the current NBN delivery on a western model of having a satellite dish on the roof of every house in every remote community and people having a PC inside the house connected to it. The reality is almost no houses in the central Australian remote communities have a computer -- maybe 2 to 5 percent.

"Most people are using smartphones or iPads or maybe a laptop to get access, so the delivery model is at odds with the type of access devices people are using. It was designed back in 2008, prior to the iPhone even being introduced to the market, and the world has changed."

According to Featherstone, the NBN needs a "last-mile delivery model" in order to be affordable and accessible -- one that looks at how the service is distributed to meet the needs of remote indigenous communities.

"In most towns and cities, you've got cable connected to every remote communities, not every house has copper to the building so other models of distribution are needed."

With broadband access reaching individual premises via satellite, Featherstone suggested satellite services could be shared via a Wi-Fi network, making it more affordable "particularly for people who don't use the internet very much or who are just first users".

Affordability is a key concern for remote indigenous communities. In large shared households "somebody has to foot the bill" and low income households don't want to end up with a bill they can't afford. As a result, individual billing and prepaid models make the financial side of telecommunications "a lot more manageable".

But there is some good news for remote Australians when it comes to NBN pricing.

NBN Co was also at last month's Broadband for the Bush forum and took note of the concerns raised around affordability of communications in remote locations. NBN Co concedes that while fixed wireless and satellite services are "the most practical option" for delivering broadband to rural, regional and remote Australians, the costs are "significantly higher per user on average than fixed-line services".

However, NBN Co is "providing the basic wholesale service for the same price as the cities, despite the higher cost" by subsidising the high costs with revenue generated in cities.

The Digital Divide

Tjawina and Noeli Roberts at the National Remote Indigenous Media Festival. Photo by Jacinta Barbour, copyright IRCA

While infrastructure is slowly rolling into Australia's rural outposts, one topic that remains front of mind for many is the country's digital divide. And as advocates for these remote communities argued at the Broadband for the Bush Forum, "improved infrastructure does not equate to digital inclusion".

Featherstone believes that "the focus of the new NBN should be on bringing everybody up to a level playing field" to ensure indigenous Australians aren't excluded from the country's digital future.

But while IRCA has high hopes for the new technologies promised for the bush, the delivery from service providers is another matter.

"The whole idea of having a billed service as the only model for broadband delivery within a remote community, where is the prepaid equivalent of that?" said Featherstone. "How about those people who don't have a computer, where are they going to go and access the computer and start learning?

"The Federal Government has rolled out a whole bunch of NBN digital hubs and digital economy programs -- none of them were aimed at the satellite footprint, the area that most needs the training, the awareness and ongoing support."

Australia's cities and towns are certainly finding their place in the country's new digital landscape, but NBN Co has been clear that "the goal of the NBN is to bring very fast broadband to all Australians."

Whether they're accessing training and employment options, doing their shopping or communicating with a town 800 kilometres away, Featherstone says it's vital for "indigenous people to have a future that isn't a welfare future and to be part of the digital economy".

Featherstone is worried that in the face of changing government policy on the NBN, debates over the best method of delivery and the continued rollout of fibre into urban centres, the country's digital divide could stretch further.

"It's like the forgotten part of Australia continues to be forgotten."