Fulfilling NBN’s equity promise

The issue of price and service equity is a real concern in the bush and we need a policy that ensures broadband services are delivered at the same price to all customers across Australia.

One of the most discussed aspects of the National Broadband Network is pricing. However, what’s less discussed is the price equity policy that will deliver services by a fibre cable connection, wireless connections or a geostationary satellite service at the same price to all customers.  The price will be the same no matter where you live in Australia. 

The cities and towns will have fibre to the fence (more than 90 per cent when the service is fully rolled out), in regional areas wireless will fill the gaps in the fibre to the fence network and, in the outback, homesteads and small communities will have a satellite ground station and, optionally, a local area wireless network driven by the satellite connection. Of course, the price of installing the satellite ground station or buying the wireless receiver and modem are not covered by this promise of equity.

This policy in the pricing of government-provided communication services is as old as Federation itself and has long enjoyed bi-partisan support in Canberra.  As to whether the NBN policy would survive a change of government is a moot point.  The Opposition communication spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull, released a statement earlier this month, but it is unclear whether the Opposition's post-NBN communication policy would feature price equity across all regions.

The reason that the policy is unclear is because I'm writing this column on a farming property seventeen kilometres east of the rural town of Uralla, on the northern tablelands of NSW.  The farm is only as far from the regional city of Armidale, once identified as the capital of a new state of New England, as Dandenong is from the Melbourne CBD or Liverpool is from Sydney.  But I have to walk to the top of the hill to the west to get mobile coverage and the dial-up modem in my laptop is struggling to get 10 kbps on the telephone line.

This is not a remote farm but, like a lot of non-suburban Australia, it is gravely under-served with communication facilities for those who want or need them.

A complex history of policy equity

The Commonwealth policy on equity in communication charges has a complex history. The policy first touched the postal service when the Commonwealth assumed responsibility from the states with Federation in 1901. Under it, a standard letter could be sent to the next door neighbour, a bank in the city, or a prospector in Marble Bar or Fitzroy Crossing all for the same charge. It was, in part, a strategy to build one nation from six sometimes fractious states.

With the coming of the telephone, the deal was not quite as uniform. Untimed calls applied in the cities and regional centres but higher charges were made for trunk call, as long distant calls were called before the advent of subscriber trunk dialling (STD).  Part of the cost was the wage of the operators who dialled and connected the parties.  As telephone infrastructure became totally automated and more sophisticated, the cost of long distance calls has fallen and a call of short duration cost no more than a local call.  Nevertheless, our major telephone provider, Telstra, is required to continue the policy of cross-subsidisation of rural services it inherited from it former owners, the Commonwealth of Australia.

And then there is television.  In the bad old day, before rural and regional aggregation, country folk had the ABC or a locally owned commercial channel that could cherry pick the best of the city offerings of the three commercial stations.  In the name of equity of access to television for all Australians, existing licensees were permitted to expand their coverage to adjacent license areas, the process now dubbed aggregation.  This forced the regional broadcasters into exclusive alliances with the city stations bringing Sydney- controlled programming to most Australians and, just incidentally of course, cementing the then power and influence of Kerry Packer’s national Nine Network. 

Times may have changed for Nine but the rhetoric of equity of access continues and the continuity of these policies is proof that the idea that we all share common wealth is not quiet dead, despite the best efforts of politicians and their advisors, business moguls and media pundits, generally tarred with the moniker ‘economic rationalist’.

It might also be evidence on the continuing influence of the old Country Party, ingenuously retitled as the National Party in the 1970s to be more `with it`, and their advocacy of rural issues. What ever the origins, the idea of price equity and service equity is a real issue here in the bush. All-in-all, it costs 10 to 20 per cent more in the bush to feed the body and soul a basic diet before anything for the nation’s wellbeing is produced. Thus the equity of communication prices is a powerful token of country folk’s participation as citizens of our Commonwealth.

Harvesting innovation 

Beyond the participation opportunities for citizens and households, there is the question of business communication and the businesses of the screen industries are excellent examples. In the past, screen industries have clustered together as though for mutual protection. Hence places like St Leonards - Artarmon in Sydney and South Melbourne – St Kilda in Melbourne are heritage focuses of screen production activity.

While social reasons for co-location are strong, they are by no means essential. There is no reason that a writer, animator, or CGI artist cannot pursue their craft in Tamworth, Uralla or Armidale if broadband communication is available. And in pursuing their craft in non-traditional places, they might harvest new and innovative local talent to add to Australia’s reputation as a centre of excellence in the arts and crafts of cinema.

There are strong reasons for better communications in the bush: equity, participation in national affairs, access to information, social interaction and convenience. Equity of pricing of communication access is just the start. By 2030, all of Australia, not just the cities, can be a place of great potential if we grasp the future now. But for now, I’ll put another small log into the combustion stove that warms the house and check the SMS and return calls tomorrow on the brow of the hill, if the rain eases.

Dr Vincent O'Donnell is the media policy editor at Screen Hub and an executive producer at Arts Alive.