Do rural Aussies deserve a less-capable NBN?

Summary:Do rural Australians really want, expect, and deserve less from their broadband than those of us in the cities? Some private-sector telco execs seem to think so. But, of course they would.

I do not live in a rural area — but if I did, I would be horribly worried by comments like those made by CEO of telco Vocus Communications, who believes that rural residents simply don't want or need city-grade broadband.

They'll both get the job done, eventually — but does that mean a horse is good enough for everyone?
(Modern John Deere Tractor image by Elcajonfarms, CC BY-SA 3.0; Farmer plowing in Fahrenwalde, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany image by Ralf Roletschek, CC BY-SA 3.0)

"The customer in the bush requires something very different, to someone in a mid-sized town, to someone in a CBD," CEO James Spenceley reportedly said.

"They also have varying amounts as to how much they're willing to pay. I think that's the biggest folly ... of Senator Conroy's is not looking at technology for the right application."

That's a line straight out of the Coalition playbook; but coming from a commercial telecoms provider, it has entirely different implications.

After all, I and others have long argued that the most important purpose of the National Broadband Network (NBN) is not so much the speeds it will deliver, but the fact that it will provide a completely open infrastructure, with the same performance and service characteristics whether you're in Kings Cross or Karratha — and it will do so free from the interference and control of Telstra, which long ago proved that it couldn't be trusted.

This is a far more important goal than debating matters of FttN versus FttP, which is what Malcolm Turnbull has made this whole debate about. And if Telstra's copper network were to be given at no cost to NBN Co to be merged with its FttP infrastructure — rather than carrying a price tag so high that Turnbull dares not speak its name — it might be a different discussion.

But Turnbull's debate is financial and political. Companies like Vocus must focus on doing what they can with what's available — and Vocus has, for years, built its services around laying fibre in the cities and delivering wholesale DSL products over iiNet, Telstra, and Optus DSLAM networks.

Are rural residents really reluctant to spend as much on broadband as their city counterparts? Are they really not as equally interested in running their businesses more efficiently by using online services? Or are they simply corn-bred hicks that don't know their ADSL from their ARSL, so to speak?

That's why Spenceley's statements are so surprising: while it's nothing new to suggest that FttN is better for rural residents, Turnbull tends to base his claims on technological reasons, rather than suggesting, as Spenceley does, that the rural market is simply .... different.

I ask you: are rural residents really reluctant to spend as much on broadband as their city counterparts?

Are they really not as equally interested in running their businesses more efficiently by using online services, or by communicating better with suppliers and customers in capital cities and overseas?

Do they not want access to IPTV services, remote healthcare and specialist diagnosis, usable videoconferencing, online education, and web-based applications that work properly?

Or are they simply corn-bred hicks that don't know their ADSL from their ARSL, so to speak?

I don't think that's what Spenceley was trying to say — but if it was, he would be dead wrong.

Indeed, many of the NBN's applications are even better-suited for rural homeowners and businesses than those in the cities. They are, after all, the only way for rural residents to access many city-grade information services.

They're designed to improve access to urban medical specialists, whose availability is severely restricted in rural areas (and I mean severely — many rural areas only get fly-in specialists visiting on just the one day per year).

Healthcare. Education. Entertainment. Social contact. Business opportunities. Are we really to believe that rural Australians are really not interested in these things, and the many others that the NBN will deliver, usually, for the first time?

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But Vocus' goals — like those of so many of the other private-sector players that Malcolm Turnbull blindly believes will magically fix Australian telecoms – are at cross purposes with the broader objectives of Labor's NBN. Vocus, like any other private company, will go where the money is.

To suggest that rural residents don't need these services, is horribly short-sighted.

To suggest they won't or can't pay for them, is prejudiced and wrong.

To suggest they don't have the technological sophistication to understand why it's better to wait a few years for a 100Mbps fibre service, than a 5Mbps wireless service, is downright insulting.

Doubly so, because rural residents can already get 5Mbps wireless services. Even NBN Co will happily point rural residents to its Interim Satellite Service, which is rated at 6Mbps and is already in use by tens of thousands of customers. By 2015, when NBN Co flies its Ka-band satellites , they'll be getting 12Mbps and decent upload speeds.

The choice Spenceley is offering the bush, therefore, is no choice at all. Like anything you would expect to hear from a private-sector operator, it is motivated by an infrastructure provider whose self-interest leads it to criticise any NBN that will challenge its own business model (at least, until it starts reselling NBN services).

As they say, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But Vocus' goals — like those of so many of the other private-sector players that Malcolm Turnbull blindly believes will magically fix Australian telecoms — are at cross purposes with the broader objectives of Labor's NBN. Vocus, like any other private company, will go where the money is, as with its recent decision to invest heavily in trans-Pacific undersea capacity.

Labor has been recently working hard to blow citizens' thought bubbles around potential rural applications of the NBN: witness Armidale's SMART Farm, the 1800 residents that have dropped into the Armidale Digital Hub; or the $12.5m investment in a University of New England facility that will use the NBN to access medical lecturers in the US. Look at the satellite ground stations to be built in rural WA; the announcement of new NBN branches in Cairns, Mackay, and Townsville; or the residents of Tasmania, who are scheduled to all have FttP in three years from now.

Are all these Australians any less deserving of modern communications infrastructure, just because they live in areas where private companies like Vocus can't justify the expense of installing fibre? Really?

The key to making the most of the NBN is to not marginalise one group of Australians by assuming they do or don't want something in particular. It is about engaging all Australians — rural and urban dwellers — to look towards the future on the same terms. If we could all do that, I think even Spenceley would find that rural customers require a lot more than he's giving them credit for.

What do you think? Do rural Australians really require "something very different" than their city counterparts? Or is Spenceley right, and they just want a connection that works, even if it's slower than city broadband?

Topics: NBN, Telcos

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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