NBN under fire for affordability, accessibility

NBN's satellite service is reportedly too expensive for lower socio-economic groups to afford, with critics saying the 'fair use' download restrictions constrain access and availability to those with limited choices.

Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) has again come under fire, this time for its current inability to provide equal access to services in remote, rural, and Indigenous areas due to a lack of competition, the high cost of satellite services, and the low data allowances provided under these services.

Speaking via a pre-recorded video at the annual Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) national conference, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged that while the technology exists to roll out high-speed broadband to the entire country, affordability still prevents access in some areas.

"The biggest barrier to internet access, as I've always said, is not technology; it is affordability. It's income, or lack of income. So making sure that broadband is affordable, and telecoms generally is affordable, as I've said, is critical.

"That is a very important part of our agenda with the NBN."

The minister pointed towards fixed-wireless networks now being implemented in regional and remote areas, as well as the new satellite service launching in October.

"We will have the whole country covered," he said.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chairman Rod Sims also noted that once the rollout has been completed, the NBN will provide less of a discrepancy in access due to affordability.

"With the rollout of the NBN, broadband will become available to all Australians and will be considered essential much in the same way as the home telephone previously," he said.

Michelle Rowland, Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications, also spoke at the ACCAN event in Sydney, saying that Labor's implementation of fixed wireless and Wi-Fi hotspots in rural areas has been lauded for equalising access to high-speed internet.

"There's a correlation between cost of living and broadband accessibility," she said.

"The fixed-wireless component central to Labor's NBN plan has been widely recognised as infrastructure of excellent quality, and a fine example of future-proofing."

Fixed wireless and satellite will each cover 5 percent and 3 percent of Australian premises, respectively, once the rollout is complete. For the government, these two services are the most expensive in terms of the cost per premises out of all the technologies being implemented.

Satellite and fixed wireless cost AU$7,900 and AU$4,900 per premises, respectively; fibre to the premises in existing premises costs AU$4,400, with new premises less than half the cost, at AU$2,100; fibre to the node costs AU$2,300 per premises; and hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) is the cheapest technology, at AU$1,800 per premises.

Rowland, however, claimed that the Coalition government is now rolling out a network that is "fundamentally unfair", as prices have increased and charges have been added on to services.

"This government has introduced a new range of NBN taxes and charges that will fall on young families and vulnerable Australians," she argued.

"And under the Coalition, the quality of your broadband will be determined by your location."

ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin pointed to a report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2014 showing in published findings that while 98 percent of households with an income of AU$120,000 or more had internet access, only 57 percent of those with a combined income of less than AU$40,000 had access. She noted that the government needs to provide equal access to its services not only through ease of use, but also across all communications channels.

"Technology allows us to complete many tasks from the comfort of our homes, but questions regarding the affordability, accessibility, and availability of communications services need to be addressed so there is equitable access to essential government services and those from other organisations," Corbin said in a statement on Tuesday morning.

"Affordability, along with a range of other issues, is often cited as a main barrier to getting connected to the internet and may present issues for some consumers to access services.

"For low-income earners, seniors, and other groups, affordability is a barrier to accessing essential online services like Centrelink and Medicare."

In order to remedy the issue of a lack of affordable access in remote areas, NBN brokered a deal with Optus' satellite division in February last year, with the federal government providing millions of dollars in funding for the new project.

The government last month revealed that the launch date for the first of the two new AU$620 million Ka-band satellites would be October 1, with commercial services availability expected within the first six months of 2016. The second satellite is planned for launch in 2016.

The two new satellites will enable high-speed broadband access for the 3 percent of the Australian population not living within the fixed-wireless, fibre, and HFC NBN network footprint, and will replace the interim satellite service put in place by the former Labor government -- which has seen so many sign-ups that broadband speeds for satellite customers slowed to a crawl.

The new satellite service, once launched, will have each IP address' usage capped to prevent capacity being outstripped by demand again.

"We will institute a new stringent fair use policy to ensure a minority of very heavy users cannot crowd out the majority," Australian Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in March last year.

Deena Shiff, director of the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee, argued on Tuesday that it is unfair to criticise heavy users of satellite services, as it is their only link to broadband, while those living in urban areas can spread their usage over several plans and internet access points.

"A satellite user is going to be paying a lot more," she said. "In practice, where there's choice of offerings, clearly, you will shop around for the best offer and you will optimise your usage between Wi-Fi, VoIP, fixed, and mobile. And that opportunity simply doesn't exist for a lot of regional users.

"When people talk about data hogs on satellite, it's a bit offensive because they rely so much on communications for their basic needs, and also their business use and their consumer use within a homestead is really sitting within the one plan, so they tend naturally to be above the average users."

Turnbull has previously said that the launch of the new satellites will provide higher speeds for those living in regional and remote areas.

"The NBN long-term satellite service will be a game changer for those living in the bush, and will help bridge the digital divide currently experienced by many," Turnbull said in July.

"These next-generation Ka-band satellites will deliver world-class performance and peak speeds of up to 25 megabits per second regardless of where people live."

Speaking in Sydney recently, Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher said a distance education working group has been established in Canberra to examine how the new NBN satellites could be leveraged to improve distance education.

"One of the things NBN is looking at is: Could you use the long-term satellite when it launches next year, take advantage of the fact that the customer equipment will have multiple ports?" he said.

"So over the first port, you'd have your standard consumer-grade service, and over the second port, that could be set aside for an education network, which is administered in each state by the relevant education department."

Turnbull assured the conference that equal access is "crucial" to the government's NBN policy.

"Affordability is right at the foundation of our approach to NBN," he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, the federal government's Digital Transformation Office (DTO) outlined plans to not only simplify and unify government agencies and services online, but also provide access across all other channels of communications in order to reach those with limited internet connectivity due to economic and geographic circumstances.

"We have a responsibility for designing the services as such so they can be used across all channels," CEO Paul Shetler acknowledged. "And that can be face to face, that can be telephony, that can be digital."