Media & Research

Here you will find and can add, areas of research about Mungallala and the district, as well as things said about and on behalf of the village and the area.

Regional Telecommunications Review submission

Prepared by Daemon Singer

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission to this review into Australia’s regional telecommunications access and the issues raised in the bush about the differentials which exist between city-dwellers and those who make a “lifestyle choice” to live west of the Great Divide and by virtue of living in that area, contribute to our ability to feed ourselves as a nation.

This submission is essentially the gathering together of the information gained during those meetings from people who had never heard that the review was being conducted, and would otherwise have now had no input into it even though they are representative, clearly, of the people most affected by the current situation with the “service” to Australia’s outback in terms of telecommunications and the capacity to move forward in a digital age.

Q1. Do people in regional Australia believe their reliance on telecommunications differs from those in urban areas? How does it differ and can you provide examples?

It’s quite evident from the discussions we had, that the use made of telecommunications in the bush compared to the city is enormously different, but only up to a point. If one considers the situation of the mothers for example, they have children aged between 5 and 14 who go the local school, and during school hours as a result of the work of the school principal, have access to the Internet by the school’s satellite service.

Once they get home however things change radically, inasmuch as they have extremely limited access to the Telstra provided “broadband” which is delivered as a wireless service being charged at around $110 month for 15 GB of data. Problematically, as a result of the curriculum which spans the state and in some respects the nation, those children have exactly the same requirements in terms of home work, research, assignments etc. which have to be submitted, and the data requirements are going to be exactly the same as those for children being educated in the city. The difference in Mungallala of course, is that the school has 8 children, not 1,100, so the economies of scale don’t apply.

I think the thing that stands out most in this situation is that among the 18 children supported within this community of 120 people, are the different types of education delivery, and the challenges inherent in each one which then gives rise to questions being asked about why children in the country are considered to be so much less deserving of services than children in the city. Learning is delivered in 2 major forms, in person and online and both of those are then further broken down as follows:

in-person delivery

    1. delivery at the local school
    2. delivery at a distant school (around 45 km away)
    3. delivery at boarding school (anywhere from 120 km to 650 km distant)
  1. online delivery
    1. delivery by School of the air
    2. delivery by home-schooling

Everyone we spoke to during the weekend, failed to see any difference between their requirements for decent digital services and the city, especially when considering that most of the mothers see the Internet first as being provided to enable their kids to be educated whilst in the case of 2 of them, their own use revolves around utilising Facebook to stay in touch with distant relatives.

In terms of the uses made of the Internet, one of the things that stood out during my discussions surrounded the issue of home-schooling, which whilst not prevalent certainly does occur, simply as a result of the distances involved in getting to school. One young chap and his sister, 12 and 14 years old, are home-schooled because the distance to their “local” school is slightly over 120 km. Since a lot of what they do as part of their education involves online conferences with fellow students and teachers, their satellite Internet at 128 kB per second is far too haphazard to be relied on for these “webinars”, so frequently they find themselves missing out on what little bit of social interaction they have with other youngsters, as well as the lesson content delivered via the “webinar”.

Q2. For those users already connected to an NBN network service, has the service met your expectations?

This question currently remains outside the requirements of this submission. No NBN has been put in place.

 

Q3. Having regard to the technical solution like to be used in your area, do you have views on the adequacy of that solution in terms of meeting needs now and into the future?

At this juncture, this question remains outside the requirements of this submission, as there is no indication at this stage whether NBN will be provided by satellite or fixed local wireless.

 

Q4. Irrespective of the adequacy of your local access, are there issues with backhaul or long-distance carriage that impact your use of telecommunication services?

Currently, there are no backhaul issues at all since the access to Internet in this area is completely inadequate premised on the needs of the local population.

Mungallala, whilst very small, still should be seen as representative of the needs of the wider rural population of this country. The farmers who are responsible for provision of our food and clothing via their work with cattle, sheep and grain production, still have children who need to be educated, still have health needs that need to be addressed and still have interactions with government which need to be supported technologically as we move more and more towards an “E-government” model of community management, and provision of services.

Currently, Mungallala has a local library with about 300 books and that’s the limit of the provision of “cultural” services to this community by the local council. In a worst-case scenario, with 300 books in the library, and in the immediate vicinity 32 possible borrowers, it is fairly obvious that the process of approaching the local council for a copy of a particular book, then waiting several weeks for it to arrive is completely inadequate to the needs of anybody undertaking education whether they be children or adults, if the book that they require is something which is part of their research.

Since the access to Internet is so inadequate, reading books online doesn’t even become an option for either school students or adults, because the maximum they can get on a per month basis from Telstra, the local provider of wireless services is 15 GB per month per account. The only way around this, is to have multiple accounts and as one reaches its 15 gigs of usage, the next one has to be provisioned and put in place. From my technological point of view, it’s an enormous positive that the mothers of those children who require Internet for school have been able to develop this workaround, and put it in place themselves, without referral to a high-level technology support provider.

 

Q5. For users living in areas without mobile coverage, what priorities, other than specific locations do you consider should be recognised in future efforts to improve coverage?

Currently, Mungallala itself (the village), has mobile coverage of a sort, but it is spotty to say the very least, and there are areas where the mobile coverage simply does not reach. For example, I can stand on the veranda of the hotel and not get a signal on my mobile phone from Telstra, but I can walk into the middle of the street, dodging 4 dog road trains, and get a 60% signal. Owing to the number of road trains going through Mungallala at 60 km/h, it has been recommended to me that I do not do this too often.

At the sawmill, about 150 m outside the edge of town, there is coverage of about 40% signal, upon which the management depend to provide service to their client base as far south as Melbourne, but again they are limited to 15 GB per month.

The fact of the matter is that places like Mungallala, and there are quite a few of them, are treated not as second-class citizens so much as just not important enough to be even thought about in the planning process for mobile/Internet/telecommunications coverage.

At some point, the people who do the planning for coverage need to understand that everybody in Australia has the same rights to develop as people, as communities and as members of wider society as everyone else. Those who make a “lifestyle choice” (to quote some politician or other), to live west of the great divide should not be made to suffer because of their “decision”!

Amongst the discussions I’ve had whilst doing the research for this submission, was the observation by one correspondent that the only way to get Telstra to do anything for them, was to talk to their local member. Apparently, the only people Telstra listen to when it comes to taking responsibility for their appalling service are politicians, and whilst this surprises me at one level, when I consider how recently Telstra was part of the bureaucracy under another name, it makes me wonder just what impact/benefit the corporatisation of a government department has.

Originally, when PMG was responsible for providing telephone services, they were required to give everybody access to a line. My own experience as recently as 1985 was to be on a party line in NSW, which was supplied across multiple paddocks on a piece of number 8 fence wire supported on sticks and through trees, and required 2 large dry cell batteries and a piece of copper stuck in the ground, to work. Technologically, we have come past that, but it appears that the provision of services by the likes of Telstra have not.

Essentially, if the service providers are allowed to completely ignore the bush on the basis of no profit, while supplying my Brisbane office at a “reasonable” speed with twice as much data as I can ever imagine myself using, it will continue to appear as though the bush with 15 GB per month delivered over mobile broadband for $100, is subsidising the city with 1 TB at 130 megs per second for exactly the same amount of money. I fail to see how that can be justified.

 

Q6. What opportunities do the mobile network industry see for extending coverage in regional Australia and increasing investment in mobile networks?

Premised on my answer to Q5, it is my firm belief that the mobile broadband/Internet service industry see no benefit whatsoever in provision of services to the bush. This view appears to be exacerbated by the lack of interest from the government in forcing the issue of providing equitable access to communications technology right across Australia. I believe there needs to be more research into this issue and perhaps the communications providers need to be encouraged a little more forcefully to provide acceptable levels of service to all areas, not just the population hubs.

Again, as part of my research into this submission I approached a number of satellite providers around Australia asking about getting either mobile satellite or fixed satellite service installed in Mungallala. I was unable to even get one to quote, and the reason they gave was “Telstra have that area covered with mobile broadband”. Whilst that may be true on paper, it is most certainly not true on the ground in as much as the so-called “coverage” from Telstra as noted earlier, is at best spotty.

I think the one thing that particularly needs to be addressed at a government level with the local “provider”, Telstra, is why do they limit subscriber’s access to Internet to 15 GB per month? Why do they see people in the country is having needs so much lower than people in the city? The fact that not everybody in the city, or in country towns, have children to educate doesn’t change the fact that there are some people who thrive on the ability to keep informed. Why does Telstra feel 15 GB per month is “sufficient”? Just as importantly, why are satellite providers prevented from accessing this area?

 

Q7. Do you have any views on co-investment approaches that might help improve the broadband technology outcome in your area?

I believe it would make sense for several of the major Internet providers to co-invest in at least part of the infrastructure required to provide services to areas such as Mungallala.

For example, sharing the cost of building a single tower to enable all providers to have a single place to put their repeaters/aerials would reduce the cost to them of provision of service.

Whilst Mungallala is never likely to pay for itself in terms of the cost of provision of service, that cost should be able to be balanced off against the profits earned in the high return areas of the cities, where data is virtually “given” away by the major players.

My own experience in Brisbane is a good example of that where my needs are actually 500 gigs per month, but for no extra money my data volume was doubled. Useful as that may be to some people, if I as a provider of high-end IT services cannot use 1 TB a month, considering that every machine I build absorbs 1.7 to 2 GB of data, and I really can’t manage to use 500 GB per month, one wonders where all the complaints about network contention come from.

In terms of actual structure, the alternative would be reasonably priced roaming agreements between the telecommunications providers so anyone with a broadband connection, irrespective the provider, would have access to data when travelling in the bush. This would enable more efficient use of the in-place infrastructure, and whilst it wouldn’t actually provide competition, it would make a decision to spend 3 days in the bush with the family somewhat easier, because people would not be out of touch via their mobile phones, and would be able to carry on answering emails etc.

 

Q8. How might new applications and services that utilise mobile networks for voice and data transform the way you live and work?

I’m currently working on development of an application to enable country-based trucking networks to compete with the likes of “StarTrack” transport which utilises satellite tracking on their vehicles to enable accurate forecasts of times of delivery, and to see when trucks/drivers are not being fully utilised.

My system utilises mobile telecommunications, rather than satellite at very low price, enabling transport clients to be kept informed of delivery times etc.. The fact that mobile coverage in the bush is so hit and miss currently, means that whilst my system works quite nicely, it is nowhere near as accurate as the systems which utilise satellite all the time. This inability to access reasonably priced geo-data means that any country-based transport company is left out in the cold in terms of provision of service to clients who are either sending or receiving goods via the massive outback transport infrastructure.

In terms of the local impact of something like this in Mungallala, somebody who was waiting for medicine to be sent from either Roma or Charleville would be able to look on the Internet to see when their medication is arriving. Whilst not necessarily an issue at the moment, since locals actually drive to Roma or Charleville to get their medication in an emergency, the ability to track where a parcel is in real time would make life enormously simpler.

Secondarily, the current process for shopping in Mungallala is that if somebody is going to town they let others know and either shop on their behalf, or take them along for the ride. Discussions are currently underway to introduce some form of community transport, but that will not happen for quite some time, so reasonable access to Internet would enable locals to shop online at the larger supermarkets and have their shopping delivered on a particular day of the week for the whole town. Lack of Internet access prevents this.

 

Q9. What communications barriers have you experienced in expanding or operating your business or providing services, such as health or education? Have you been able to overcome these barriers and if so, how?

My current plan is to move to Mungallala in about 6 years when I am 66 years old. At that time I hope to be able to provide, via the property my wife and I have recently purchased, to run a small IT company servicing the needs of the outback within a 500 km range north, west and south of Mungallala. Without an affordable, reliable Internet service that will be extremely difficult.

Premised on the situation currently extant, where it appears that Telstra prevents satellite companies providing services anywhere they have “mobile broadband coverage”, it seems relatively obvious that my plan for service provision will not be viable.

Whilst it appears that NBN will come eventually to Mungallala, it’s not until such time as we have some form of stable, reliable, price competitive form of digital communications, organizations such as mine, small as it is, will be unable to access equitable cost-effective up-to-date technology in the bush.

Part of what I provide here in Brisbane, is the ability for elderly people to be taught online, one-on-one at home. Without decent Internet that will not be possible to continue either for the people in Brisbane, or just as importantly, for the people in Mungallala.

There is currently no way to provide this service from Mungallala because of the paucity of Internet access.

 

Q 10. What communications functions, for example speed, mobility, reliability data etc., would best suit your needs noting the limitations of each technology-for example mobile, wireless, satellite or other?

The main technology I utilise in terms of providing education and support is a simple graphical interface which can be delivered over any form of data supply, to enable me to directly access the desktop of the client machine. This is true for communications, support and education purposes, and for enabling people to have the computers serviced regularly without me having to drive to their location, or for them to drive to me to carry out the service. The only exception to this situation is if the service requires hardware, or the Internet is not available, or is down.

In Brisbane the Internet so rarely goes down as to not require consideration. In Mungallala however, the Internet is so rarely up that it makes my ability to service the needs of my clients useless.

In the current economic climate, as a 60-year-old man, I don’t see any way of retiring when I turn 65. My super is not sufficient and whilst I have a couple of positively geared properties, they only return a total of $270 per week in rent, when both are tenanted. With that in mind, how am I supposed to retire unless I supplement that income by continuing to work?

The short answer is I can’t, so not only do I fail to be able to continue to generate an income, as a direct result of the lack of provision of decent data streams in the outback, I am unable to provide assistance to anybody that I can’t drive to. This seems intensely unfair when taken into consideration with what I have in Brisbane, as noted earlier for around $109 per month.

That having been said, the other side of the coin is that my current clients in Brisbane won’t be able to be serviced either, which is course means I need to go on the pension and become a net drain on the economy, which I’m seriously not happy about.

 

QE 11. Do we need to continue to guarantee the standard telephone service for Paul (or only some) consumers, and if so to what extent?

In terms of the current discussion, it appears that telecommunications companies are more than happy to ignore the needs of people in the country wherever they can get away with it.

As mentioned earlier the original process where the GPO was responsible for providing some form of telephone service to everybody in Australia has basically gone by the board, and are now applying the same principle of non-compliance with that original requirement to the provision of Internet services.

At some stage we have to understand and accept that this is a developed country and as we move forward as a country, we need to make sure that every person in Australia has equitable access to communications at some level, and in spite of where they live they shouldn’t be charged so much for that access that they can’t afford it.

Without telecommunications services/be they telephone or data based, we do not move forward. As a country, we don’t grow. By not ensuring that people in the outback have equitable access to the services, we stunt their growth as human beings. We stop their children learning, we stop their businesses from earning, and we stop them from participating in the Australian body politic.

Telecommunications is as important to Australians in their development as people, as having the ability to vote is important to the country in its supposed move forward towards a world-leading position as a developed nation. By reducing or removing access to the ability to communicate worldwide, we run the risk of becoming another third-rate African country being driven by business where the only measure of the country is its bottom line.

It is imperative that every person in Australia has the ability to pick up a phone, of some style, or go online, and have their voice heard.

Q12. Are there new or other services, the availability of which should be underpinned by consumer safeguards

In essence, this reverts back to the original act which governed the work of the GPO in terms of the requirement to provide a telephone service to every Australian home.

These days, it’s not about the “home”, it’s about the “business”, it’s about the “organisation” and all the other elements that go to make up this nation. We all need to have a voice which can be heard. For many of us, that voice isn’t our own, directly. Rather it is an organisation such as Electronic Frontiers Australia, reaching out on behalf of the consumers of technology, of data, of communications, ensuring that every voice, even those from tiny little towns in the outback, are heard at government level.

Rather than talk about “new” or “other” services that should be protected by legislation, it would be good to see what is already available, and has been for almost a century, protected by the notion of justice and equitable access, by legislation, which rather than looks at the bottom line of the service providers as a metric of how well they’re doing, looks at the development of community and country to measure that development. Currently utilising development as a measure of an organisation’s march forward would award every one of them with a negative score.

What we need to do is legislatively protect that which many people in the outback have grown used to not having.

Q 13. What standards should apply to your services? How might they best be enforced?

There are a number of indicators which one could reasonably use as a measure of access to technology. Unfortunately, they are not taken into account in terms of access to service, because by provisioning them, we would be reducing the bottom line of the shareholders of the providers. Unfortunately, most of those shareholders don’t live in the outback. In fact based on my own view of what happens in Mungallala it would be rare to see any of those shareholders even visiting the outback, unless ensconced in a $100,000 four-wheel-drive.

The standards which could be considered include the following:

  1.  Is it possible to pick up the telephone and call your doctor?
  2. Is it possible to turn on your computer and read an email?
  3. Is it possible to turn on your computer and talk to your doctor?
  4. is it possible to turn on your computer and talk to your teacher?
  5. Is it possible to turn on your computer and interact with classmates?
  6. Is it possible to turn on your computer and complete a degree at University of your choice?
  7. Is it possible to turn on your computer and find somebody to help you learn how to turn on your computer?
  8. Is it possible to take part in discussions, make submissions, research issues of concern, make contact with your politician, without being exposed to enormous stress?
  9. Is it possible if you are injured on your tractor to get help?
  10. Is it possible if you are driving along the road and you have an accident, to get help?

Enforcement of standards such as these, basic as they are, would create a world of pain for some people, but not all. The question revolves around not so much enforcing the laws, as much as creating them. The creation of laws which will impact the bottom line of any organisation will always be pushed back against by lobbyists in Canberra, at a federal level.

The fact that politicians tend to take the path of least resistance, knowing that most resistance will come from not from the end user of the service being discussed, so much as the representatives of the shareholders of the organisation which is being asked to provide the services, speaks volumes about the nature of our politics. It should be said, as part of this that neither of the major parties is in a position to take the moral high ground in terms of their decision-making process, since both appear to be completely under the direction of those sections of the country which measure success in terms of dollars.

There is much more to the country, Australia. We have always been the country of the fair go. We have been happy to go to war to protect other people’s views. We are happy to be swayed by other countries business interests. We are happy to accept direction from other countries governments on behalf of their business interests. But what has that said about Australia?

In a fairly wide ranging review such as this it has to be accepted that there is more to the review than the simple questions asked. It has to be accepted that positions will be taken as part of the review which reflect on issues outside of the review process, issues which in and of themselves have nothing to do with the review however, without them being considered, the review can be seen as meaningless. In fact, reviews such as this, reflect better on us as a country, as a group of people and as a sovereign nation, that we are prepared to put the spotlight on ourselves and not only identify the things missing, but examine the things which are there but which are either incomplete or are only prodded occasionally, to enable us to say that we take care of our own.

My interest in Mungallala was generated by a single visit. I met half a dozen local people, and fell in love with the town. Mungallala is not alone in being able to do this. I am not alone in deciding that it’s where I want to finish up. Irrespective the results of this review, whether the big telecommunications providers listen or care, will not change my decision to be part of that town, hut at some stage it has to be realised that a country this big has to be run on behalf of one people, and all of those people need to be part of the process of moving forward, or at least have the right to be part of that process if they so desire.

As noted at the beginning of my submission, in making this submission I wear 3 hats – as a businessman, as a board member of an organisation deeply involved with the provision at an equitable level of communications/data services, and finally as a person who has made a life decision to move to the bush.

It is reasonable to assume that I would like to see my work continue, thus enabling me to retire and still have something to do, and that colours elements of my submission.

It is also reasonable, as an active member of EFA that my submission will involve a political element since the very nature of the review questions decisions made by government on behalf of all Australians, in response to calls by some Australians. In this of course I refer to all Australians having equitable access to digital communications, and some Australians being concerned with their organisation’s bottom line.

Further, 1 believe my life will be much simpler in Mungallala if I have easily accessible communications, because as an ageing person (I am almost 60), and having been diagnosed with diabetes type II, I believe it is reasonable that I should have halfway decent access to medical care.

Taken as Mungallala sits today, none of those 3 positions are met, primarily, I believe, because nobody has ever asked the people of Mungallala what they need, and just as importantly, due to the lack of educational opportunities, they have no clear understanding of what is available as technology changes almost on a day-to-day basis.

There is no excuse for inequality among Australians. We as a nation have a right to a decent level of health care, we as a nation have the right to a decent level of education and we as a nation have the right to educate our children as we see fit.

It should not be automatic that our children need to move away at the age of 13 to go to boarding school because the local area has no high school, nor should our children suffer because we can’t get a good enough Internet connection at home to educate them at home, if we feel that is in their best interests.

Enough has been said about what happens/has happened to children in institutional care over the last couple of years to fill a book. In fact I would be surprised if the book wasn’t filled. Why should one of the questions we ask as parents be “Will my kids be safe” if we make a choice to send them to boarding school? Why should it be necessary to ask the question?

If we decide, based on the reports coming out of the current Royal commission, to home-school our children why that should be made almost impossible simply because our Internet access is either not affordable, or not provided? We as a country need to support every single person in the country and providing the ability for every single person to grow, educationally, medically, in fact in every way, irrespective their postcode, their faith, the colour of their skin or their bank balance. That is the very least we must do.

 

My thanks for the opportunity to make this submission.