Regardless of your political inclinations, under an Australian government of either stripe, one of the original problems with the NBN is that there is no sensible way to get all of the network on some form of parity.
That’s because while built-up areas cross their collective fingers and hope their name appears on a suburb list to get fibre-to-the-node upgrades, there remains parts of NBN remit on fixed wireless and satellite services. And for those people, the absolute theoretical best is 50Mbps, but the practical baseline is 25Mbps.
So disappointing was the NBN satellite service in the early years, that Labor, the party that purchased the satellites when it created the NBN, called for a review of the technology in 2017.
The state of rural and regional connectivity, along with increases in data consumption being reflected across all the country, was discussed in the Regional Telecommunications Review published on Monday that was completed by a committee chaired by former Nationals MP and Shadow Regional Communications Minister Luke Hartsuyker.
“[With] the announcement of further fixed line upgrades to address future demand, the demarcation between those in the NBN fixed line footprint and those outside of it threatens to compound existing digital divides unless more is done for users of the NBN fixed wireless and satellite networks,” the report said.
Those on satellite connections, the report said, felt restricted due to the usage of peak and off-peak data quotas, and users were hesitant for voice services to be supplied over the satellites due to latency issues, and weather events such as rain fade or heavy cloud providing less resilience than the current copper-based landline option for voice.
Not that the report has much in the way of positive thoughts about the current copper network either.
“Copper and other networks used to provide landline services in the regions are deteriorating, and not enough is being done under the existing consumer safeguard framework to ensure that they are appropriately maintained to the standards expected by regional users,” it said.
The report called for obligations on Telstra to prevent copper faults, rather than remediating them after they happen, as well as annual reporting on the telco’s maintenance program as part of its USO obligations.
“Regional, rural, and remote consumers would be better served by a regulatory regime for repairs and maintenance which, instead of applying individual rebates or compensation, is enforced across all technologies and which uses significant, escalating penalties to make sure providers are encouraged to actively prevent, identify and resolve network faults,” it said.
The report called for NBN to shift satellite users into fixed wireless where it could, although that technology had its own problems as well, particularly in the speeds offered to users.
“[While] NBN Co has its own minimum 6 Mbps busy hour performance target, this is too low to meet the reasonable expectations of consumers,” the report said.
“Any standards imposed on SIPs [statutory infrastructure providers] should mandate a busy hour speed target for both downloads and uploads to ensure services are meeting demand during the periods of heaviest use.”
In recent releases of statistics on fixed wireless performance by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), those on the supposed 25-50Mbps down and 5-20Mbps up Fixed Wireless Plus plan have been shown to be barely able to crack the 6Mbps mark for upload speeds, and it has been that way for some time.
“We suggest this 6Mbps target and other speed targets need to be significantly strengthened as demand continues to increase and pressure on the network grows. This is particularly important for upload performance,” the report said.
“NBN Co has recently introduced Fixed Wireless Plus plans, which are delivering increased download speeds on the network. However, the Committee has heard that upload speeds on these plans have been reduced from an initial 20Mbps to just 10Mbps.
“This is insufficient for many of the activities higher-bandwidth users are looking to use the service for and inconsistent with the upload speeds available to fixed line consumers.”
Addressing mobile communications, the committee was in line with recent ACCC calls for a telco mobile coverage measurement standard.
At the heart of the problem is telcos interpreting record keeping rules over coverage in different ways. Optus and TPG mostly do it with predicted outdoor coverage on a standard handset, while Telstra predicts coverage based on having an external antenna.
“Much of the coverage information available to consumers uses either predictive assumptions which do not reflect lived experience, or inconsistent terminology which makes it difficult to compare competing service offerings. Consumers, businesses and policymakers need to be able to access accurate and granular coverage information which is contestable through ‘on-the-ground’ performance data,” it said.
“The Australian government can play a role in collecting, standardising, publishing, and challenging this coverage information to support users.”
As well as coverage, the committee recommended the government do its own testing on signal strength and network congestion in order to develop a tool for consumers.
The committee also called for a modicum of coordination to occur between different levels of government when considering investments in regional Australia, and said federal and state government should work together to identify priority regions and growth corridors.
“During consultations, the committee heard of instances of significant Australian, state and territory government investments to establish new advanced manufacturing facilities and industrial precincts in areas such as Parkes, NSW and Emerald, Queensland,” it wrote.
“However, these have not been supported by the provisioning of enterprise-grade digital connectivity infrastructure, either by NBN Co or on a third-party basis. Without access to appropriate connectivity options, particularly in relation to fibre backbone connectivity, these facilities are unable to leverage autonomy, cloud services and other productivity measures, setting them at a disadvantage to their urban competitors and reducing the flow-on benefits of government investment.”
The report noted that some local councils questioned why they needed in-house telecommunication capabilities or to co-fund infrastructure upgrades given that responsibility does not lie at that level of government.
When dealing with emergency situations, the report said governments and telcos should get together to run trials of domestic roaming in disaster-affected areas to ensure reliable communications in such situations for all.