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Will the NBN fix a broadband availability gap?

A ubiquitous network will give everyone equal access, but is it all about income? After all, four of the top 10 broadband areas are on Sydney's leafy upper north shore.
Written by Phil Dobbie, Contributor on

First off, a declaration. I set about researching this piece intending to show that broadband penetration has less to do with availability and more to do with affordability. My revelatory piece was going to show, once and for all, that broadband in the bush will be meaningless if people can't afford it.

Well, to an extent, that's true, but the impact is not as significant as you might think.

The findings come from the 2011 census, the results of which the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has been drip feeding over recent months. It includes the all-important question (B35) on internet access at home.

Of the 7.76 million households across 578 local government areas, 54 percent have broadband access. Broadband, by their definition, seems to be anything that isn't dial-up.

It just so happens that I live in the local government area with the highest rate of broadband. In Ku-ring-gai, 85 percent of homes were connected to broadband on census night. It's fair to say that with the exception of the odd struggling journo, there's a fair bit of money around here, although not as much as in areas like Mosman, Woollahra, and Leichhardt (which includes Balmain), where 20 percent of households earn more than AU$4,000 per week. Income is higher in these areas, but broadband penetration is lower — 81 percent, 79 percent, and 78 percent, respectively.

In fact, it's not just Ku-ring-gai beating these well-heeled suburbs; 85 percent of households in the nearby (and less well moneyed) Hills Shire are also broadband connected. In fact, four of the top 10 local government areas for broadband connectivity are on Sydney's upper north shore. Broadband is bigger in Hornsby than it is in Mosman, for example. So, geography and demography have a part to play in all of this.

Image: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet

At the opposite end of the scale, Kempsey has the lowest broadband penetration, and here it is to do with income. For government areas of 10,000 people or more, it's one of the poorest regions; 79 percent of households earn less than AU$1,500 per week. Glenorchy has the same low connection rate, with a tiny bit more money swilling round, but a high unemployment rate (7.1 percent).

Image: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet

Even so, it's not a direct relationship. There are areas with a relatively low income that have far higher broadband penetration. NSW's Byron Bay is a little wealthier than Kempsey, but its broadband take-up is almost a third higher. Towns like Auburn, the Sunshine Coast, Logan, and the Gold Coast all have higher take-up than a correlation between adoption and income would suggest.

When we look across the country, we see that once the income reaches a certain level (with 50 percent of households earning more than AU$1,500 per week), extra income has little or no influence on broadband penetration. Other factors are at play.

Image: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet

One influence could be availability. Telstra is the only ADSL2+ provider in Kempsey, for example, and ports are limited. So, even if you wanted broadband, there's every chance you can't get it. Agile is the only other option in Mildura and Echuca (Campaspe). Compare that to the top 10, where Telstra is joined by at least two other ADSL2+ providers in each case.

The good news is that if we eventually see a ubiquitous network, availability will no longer be a constraint.

Can we see that happening in Kempsey? We'll have to wait and see. And it could be quite a long wait. NBN construction doesn't start there until June 2016. Those broadband fiends in Ku-ring-gai have an even longer wait — they're not on the rollout schedule yet.

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