Pork barrelling, poor mapping hampering better communications

Andrew Miller
By Andrew Miller
Updated April 6 2022 - 4:17am, first published April 4 2022 - 9:00pm
OVERHAUL CALL: Leading telecommunications analyst, Paul Budde Consulting chief executive Paul Budde says 'throwing money' at the network is not enough.

Pork barrelling, a lack of bipartisan support and poor mapping is hampering the efficient rollout of better communications in the bush, according to a leading telecommunications analyst.

The federal budget promised $1.3 billion to support mobile coverage on regional roads and adjacent premises, targeted improvements to digital connectivity and improve natural disaster resilience.

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And $480 million will be set aside to fund NBN upgrades, with NBN Co contributing $270 million to the total cost of $750m, over the next two and a half years.

But leading telecommunications analyst, Paul Budde Consulting chief executive Paul Budde said 'throwing money' at the network was not enough.

"We need to map the blackspots better, the uncovered areas, the marginal areas of the service footprints," Mr Budde said.

"Once we have such a map, we can link this to the usage patterns in these areas and as a result, much better-targeted upgrades can be provided there where they are needed.

"I am always worried with election handouts that those strategic issues are left behind and that we thus move on to the next crisis."

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Mr Budde said the new internet funding would mean expanding the fixed wireless footprint coverage by up to 50 per cent, allowing 120,000 additional premises to switch from Sky Muster and higher speed services to the fixed wireless network.

He said as more people switched over to fixed wireless, capacity on the satellite service would be freed up, resulting in higher amounts of data for Sky Muster users.

There are currently 17,000 Sky Muster users in Victoria.

"The footprint of Sky Muster will be reduced by more than a third," Mr Budde said.

"Average monthly data allowances for standard Sky Muster plans will increase to 55 GB in the short term, increasing to 90 GB once the fixed wireless upgrade is complete in around two years' time."

The additional funding would address under capacity in both the fixed wireless and satellite service, with the aim being lifting network quality at the busiest time of the day from six to 50mbs, at no extra cost.

Mr Budde said at the turn of the century, experts believed Australia needed at least two satellites, but the government initially cut that back to one.

"This started the rot and satellite remained an under-invested area as it was difficult for the coalition to admit that they were wrong," Mr Budde said.

He said it appeared Sky Muster was being threatened by Elon Musk's Starlink system.

"Then Starlink entered the market and it became clear that Sky Muster was a dud.

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Then Starlink entered the market and it became clear that Sky Muster was a dud.

- Paul Budde Consulting chief executive Paul Budde

"People could suddenly compare and saw that what they had was second rate, similar to many other parts of the NBN.

"In the meantime new satellites are already needed and it will be interesting to see if they continue Sky Muster or if they do a deal with companies such as Starlink, who operate a different technology."

Mr Budde said satellites had very limited capacity, with poor fixed services in remote Australia

That required strategic planning, but even if the NBN Co had coverage and black-spot maps, 'politics is short term, while telecoms require long term planning and long term stability', he said.

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"When telecoms became a political football, as happened with (former Prime Minister Tony) Abbott, you lose national cohesion and you end up with the second rate NBN that we have."

He said he hoped that any future government would allow NBN to be in charge of the roll out.

"The problem here could be that this company is rapidly becoming a monopoly," he said.

"They see competition from Starlink and from the telcos using 5G so I would not be surprised if they also use the government handout to ensure that their position in these markets gets protected as much as possible.'

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Mr Budde called for an end to the 'politicising' of the nbn.

"We are the only country that does not have bi-partisan support," he said.

"Get the politicians out of the way and let the engineers develop the best possible nbn, based on what we as a country want," he said.

Worthwhile exercise

Mallee sheep producer Ray Kingston said he didn't know whether it would get Sky Muster to where it needed to be, but it was a worthwhile exercise.

"Sky Muster was the best they could do at the time," Mr Kingston said.

"But instead of recognising it as a necessary compromise for remote areas, they skimped by pushing as many small towns on to it as possible, instead of having a serious crack at fixed wireless. "

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He said that appeared to compromise Sky Muster, as it was overloaded.

"A similar thing happened on the edges of towns with fixed wireless.

"You save money by pushing as many people to that as possible to save money on the fibre footprint, again often overloading those services.

"My take is that if you could flip a switch today and swap a heap of people from satellite to fixed wireless the Sky Muster satellite would still be useful next to Starlink on price for a lot of users."

Stony Creek dairy farmer Doug Hanks said he'd had Sky Muster for about five years, as it was his only option as there was a hill in the path of the aerial.

"I think it has only dropped out once, and we blew up a wifi once - other than that its been very reliable," Mr Hanks said.

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"One issue we had, when all the kids were at home trying to study, was not having unlimited internet - but some of them were smart and used it between 12 and 7am as they said it was faster.

"We were on the biggest plan but it still wasn't enough for our big family or business."

He said he understood the reason behind that, as there wasn't enough space for all rural people to be on Sky Muster.

"On another note we now have nbn fibre to the node at our holiday house (at Venus Bay) - "It's amazing how fast and cheap compared to Sky Muster."

Usage decline

An NBN Co spokesperson said the fixed wireless upgrade would take two and a half years to complete.

he spokesperson said NBN Co predicted a 300 per cent rise in end-customer demand for data on the Fixed Wireless network over the next ten years.

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The upgrades would include around 25,000 Sky Muster customers.

"We will also continue to review additional enhancements that we can make to Sky Muster and Sky Muster Plus services that can be introduced in a way doesn't compromise the network experience during the evening busy hour period, including an increase in data limits and extended off-peak times for premises remaining on satellite services."

The NBN Co has also announced increases in the off-peak time for unmetered data usage.

From the middle of the year, all internet use including video streaming and VPN use will now be unmetered during the off-peak period (12midnight - 4pm) and therefore not count towards a user's monthly metered data allowance for majority of the day (16hrs).

The spokesman said the company was committed to improving the quality and performance of the services it offered to semi-rural, rural and regional customers.

"The $750 million investment in the nbn fixed wireless network will allow us to implement equipment upgrades leveraging off existing planned spending, but lifting speed and capacity to new levels to address the "step change in demand" recognised by Regional Telecommunications Review," the spokesman said.

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"Our fixed wireless and satellite services are now mature technologies backed by our service level agreements in relation to timeframes for connections and fault restoration. We also provide the assurance of well-established local technical support for professional activation and assurance."

Sky Muster had proved itself as a national asset during the most recent emergency situations supporting families and communities during the NSW and South East Queensland floods crisis.

It was Sky Muster that facilitated connectivity for several towns and communities where our nbn local team was on the ground helping customers.

The federal government has also set aside $811.8 million for a Connecting Regional Australia Initiative to expand mobile coverage and improve connectivity, resilience and affordability, building on the Mobile Black Spot Program and the Regional Connectivity Program.

Its intended to expand regional mobile coverage and address blackspots on up to 8,000 km of roads and adjacent households.

Pork barrelling, poor mapping hampering better communications

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Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller

Journalist

I'm a general reporter with Stock & Land, with a special interest in irrigation issues. I completed my cadetship, with the Age, in 1980. Over my career, I've worked for ABC radio news (Mt Isa, Qld) and at provincial and suburban newspapers.

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