Bridging the digital gap over the last decade

Digital gap narrowing for the bush

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FIGHTING FOR FAIRNESS: BIRRR admin Kristy Sparrow, Kylie Stretton, Kristen Coggan, Julie Stott and Amanda Salisbury have been advocating for better telecommunications in rural and regional Australia.

FIGHTING FOR FAIRNESS: BIRRR admin Kristy Sparrow, Kylie Stretton, Kristen Coggan, Julie Stott and Amanda Salisbury have been advocating for better telecommunications in rural and regional Australia.

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The past decade has seen some major developments for regional telecommunications services but there's still room to do better.

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When it comes to modern life, communications and connectivity are widely accepted as necessities.

The importance of good telecommunications is no different for rural communities but a lack of adequate data, signal issues, low speeds, high costs and a lack of available services have been a source of ongoing frustrations for those living in outback Queensland.

While some strides have been made over the past decade, it remains a key issue for Queensland's regional communities.

In 2011 the NBN started its interim satellite service as a temporary solution providing rural and regional Australians with immediate access to enhanced broadband services. But while the ISS was initially expected to service up to 44,000 connections by late 2013 it had become oversubscribed, with performance taking a major hit.

It was in that environment that the Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia Facebook group was born, founded in 2014 by Charters Towers' Kylie Stretton and Alpha's Kristy Sparrow.

Ms Sparrow said there had been some great progress made since then.

"I don't think people have given credit to where we were at only five years ago," she said.

"Where I was getting a connection that was very unreliable and limited to 25 gigabytes for I think $175, my new NBN satellite connection is actually much more reliable.

"I used 256 gigabytes last month on a Sky Muster Plus connection and that cost me $135.

"However I think we still do have a little way to go to ensure we're getting access equitable to metropolitan areas."

The launch of the first national broadband network Sky Muster satellite happened in 2015, followed by a second one in 2016 to help connect customers in rural and remote Australia to improved internet services.

Ms Sparrow said improvements to Sky Muster services, non-standard fixed wireless installs and the move towards set protocols for those, NBN's commitment to fix wireless congestion and a government-funded digital tech hub in the works were among the developments.

"There are lots of wins that have happened in our time in telecommunications," she said.

"Most people do understand that they're never going to have equal access to telecommunications but if it could be equitable, that's what we're striving for.

"I think we're well on the road to that now, I think the government and the providers are very aware that telecommunications is an essential service."

In August this year, NBN Co launched its Sky Muster Plus product, designed to help provide peace of mind by allowing homes and small businesses access unmetered data for essential online activities such as internet banking and email.

NBN Co's CEO Stephen Rue said early insights from a Sky Muster Plus trial that ran between June and August showed about one third of the total data used in July was unmetered.

Most people do understand that they're never going to have equal access to telecommunications but if it could be equitable, that's what we're striving for. - Kristy Sparrow

"This not only frees up more data for metered activities such as video streaming or accessing cloud storage but will also provide comfort to customers who can continue to access essential internet services such as online banking any time," he said.

Ms Sparrow said it was great that the Sky Muster Plus was now offering unmetered data for essential tasks such as your net banking, emails and web browsing, making it easier to conduct business and meet education needs.

"Your restricted data is things like Netflix, video, streaming, Playstation updates, gaming and things like that," she said.

"Sky Muster Plus has given people the ability to actually use services like Netflix."

The path forward for coming years has been set out in the federal government's 2018 Regional Telecommunications Review: Getting it right out there report, with BIRRR's Ms Stretton involved in the review.

Recommendations include a government package to improve broadband and mobile services in key areas, an audit of repair times for landline services, a review of existing data limits for Sky Muster services, a targeted Indigenous Digital Inclusion program and measures to improve digital literacy in regional and rural Australia.

Ms Sparrow said despite the progress of the last few years, there was still room for improvement in rural telecommunication services.

"I think there definitely needs to be improvements for towns that have been mapped for Sky Muster," she said.

"What we're finding is that across Australia, particularly in Queensland and Western Australia, is there a lot of towns that are currently using ADSL. They're mapped for NBN satellite, which would be a backwards step for these towns."

The group is also pushing for videoconferencing for School of Distance Education and telehealth services to be unmetered under Sky Muster plans and wants to see the mobile black spot program continue.

"My son just finished accepting his apprenticeship offer and he needed to enter an SMS code," Ms Sparrow said.

"If you have no mobile coverage, there's no way to get an SMS code.

"There's also things like the myGov portal and most banks are moving to SMS codes... that's the way things are moving and people who have no mobile coverage are being left behind."

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