Let’s add fixing the NBN to our post-COVID-19 planning

By Laurie Patton

Monday April 6, 2020

That’s why. Adobe

People are being required to work from home. Students are doing lessons online. Telehealth consultations are now being bulk-billed. All this will change the way we use the Internet forever.

According to NBN Co, broadband demand is “sky rocketing” but they have everything under control.

So they and the telcos have upped their data capacity and for those with fast and reliable broadband all is well. But that’s not the point. What about the third or more of the population with a dud fixed-to-the-node (FTTN; old copper wires) connection? No amount of extra capacity at the telco end will help those customers who are on the wrong side of a digital divide. You can’t make FTTN run faster by throwing more data at it.

Essentially, there are the lucky Australians — those who have a 21st century NBN connection, and the unlucky Australians — those stuck with an inferior service that needs to be upgraded.

My principle concern right now is about the impact on the productivity of people working from home, which will flow through to businesses and the economy.

I’m also concerned about the mental health of people battling with poor internet connections. It’s frustrating enough when your movie buffers, but what if the system fails when you’re trying to send in an assignment or a report to the boss who has been hounding you for it all day?

The impact of the coronavirus will most likely continue for quite a long while and therefore so will the need for better broadband in people’s homes. What’s more, when we emerge from this crisis the likelihood is that a good many bosses will have become so accustomed to their employees working from home this will become a permanent thing, even if it’s only a day or so a month.

We could even see enhanced interest in decentralisation as more employers realise they don’t need to have all their workers located in expensive CBD offices. According to news reports, real estate agents in regional areas are already seeing an increase in interest from people looking to leave our congested capital cities.

The government has made a welcomed move by allowing bulk-billing for online medical and mental health consultations. Telehealth is one of the great untapped benefits expected to flow through the NBN. There’s only so much that can be done over the phone. Doctors need high-quality video for the more complex cases. While this is a temporary move from the government, hopefully it will become permanent. It will be of immense benefit to people in rural and regional areas and people with disabilities that make going to a doctor’s surgery difficult.

TelSoc, which I joined late last year as vice president, has urged the government to include fixing the NBN in its stimulus funding.

We’ve called on the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission “to include in its considerations the inequity of access and affordability of broadband and other telecommunications services as has been highlighted by need for people to work or study online at home due to the COVID-19 crisis; and to recommend that the government fund NBN Co to enable it to employ suitable retrenched workers, retrain them as required, and deploy them to begin upgrading problematic NBN connections as a national stimulus measure and in order to enable a more rapid shift towards a more digitally-enabled community and economy post the crisis”.

READ MORE: An opportunity for the Prime Minister’s National COVID-19 Coordination Commission to prove its mettle

It makes sense to include a technology upgrade for the NBN in our post coronavirus planning. In fact, the sooner NBN Co starts the planning, the sooner people can expect to see an improvement in their home internet connection.

Replacing the FTTN section of the NBN will need to occur sooner or later — so why not do it now and create employment opportunities for some of the 100K+ who are progressively becoming unemployed?

Even if the government simply made an in-principle commitment and NBN Co started the planning now, it would give industry and people generally greater confidence in the future than currently exists.

Over in New Zealand, where they persisted with fibre to 87% of premises, establishments will have access to a full-fibre connection by the end of 2022. Chorus NZ, the equivalent of NBN Co, is already delivering gigabit speeds to many of its customers across the ditch. What’s more, over time, they found ways to reduce their per-premises installation cost by around 40%.

If we learn from the Kiwis, we can roll out fibre here for far less than it was costing back when the NBN project began — probably not much more, perhaps even less, than continuing to use problematic old copper wires and run-down Pay-TV cables with their associated remediation expenses.

We need the government to accept that their erstwhile colleagues made a mistake in dumping the original fibre-based NBN. It’s as simple as that.

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