A tech expert has warned that Australia is staring down the barrel of a new “digital divide” after the Federal Government announced that access to “ultra fast” internet would only be for people requesting high-speed plans.
A $3.5 billion upgrade to the National Broadband Network announced on Wednesday is expected to deliver downloads of one gigabit per second to eight million homes by 2023.
But RMIT Associate Professor Mark Gregory says between 25 to 50 per cent of Australians will be left behind because they won’t be able to afford it.
“If you want fibre it’s based on demand. In other words, you have to sign up to a high-speed plan to actually get the connection made,” he said.
“We’re going to have another digital divide between those that can afford the upgrade and those that can’t.”
Dr Gregory said the cost of NBN services was already $20 more expensive per month than it should be and the upgrade could cause price hikes.
“The problem with that is that telecommunications is an essential service, as we’ve seen through the pandemic – everyone is doing education from home, health from home, working from home,” Dr Gregory said.
“Twenty-five per cent are going to be left languishing on poorly performing fibre-to-the-node copper-based technologies.
“That is really unreasonable. Every Australian should be provided with an equitable service.”
Dr Gregory said although a large portion of the network getting access to high speeds was a positive step forward, the Government had missed an opportunity.
“With interest rates being at an all-time low, now would be the time to invest in completing the NBN with an all-fibre network,” he said.
“We’re talking about infrastructure spending as a way of helping us move out of the COVID pandemic to help get the economy going again.”
When asked if one gigabit per second downloads would be worth the cost, he said: “It depends what people want to use that for.”
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd has taken a swipe at a $3.5 billion upgrade of the National Broadband Network that gives two million properties access to “ultra fast” internet via fibre-to-the-home.
The Rudd Government’s plan for the NBN in 2009 included a fibre-to-the-premises model.
But it was scrapped in 2013 under the Abbott Government, which wanted a mix of technologies and fibre-to-the-node.
Mr Rudd took to Twitter on Wednesday to accuse the Morrison Government of being “policy frauds”.
“What a mega backflip on the part by Morrison,” he wrote.
“For seven years they’ve botched my govt’s 2009 plan for fibre to the premises, instead wasting billions with fibre to the mythical “node”, giving us the worst speeds in the world. Now this!”
Opposition communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland also slammed the decision as “the most extraordinary, wasteful, humiliating backflip in public policy in a generation”.
“Australian households and businesses will have to endure a second NBN migration, and taxpayers will unnecessarily cop billions for duplicating the cost and time of the rollout,” she said.
“The Liberals have been telling us that Labor’s vision of an NBN, that our delivery of a fibre-based model to Australians in order to meet their needs as consumers, as businesses, as students, was not achievable.
“They are now going to invest billions more to fibre up their second-rate NBN.”
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the Government was committing to more fibre when it made “economic sense” to do so.
“Labor‘s plan by contrast was to build fibre everywhere well before people actually needed it or were willing to pay for it,” he said.
“The capital cost of a connection, $4500 per premises, fibre-to-the-node is in the low twos.
“Many of the most successful rollout strategies around the world, including in New Zealand for example, have been you only connect to the fibre lead-in when the customer orders a service.”
Under the $3.5 billion upgrade, Mr Fletcher said eight million households and businesses would have access to “ultra fast” download speeds of one gigabit per second by 2023.
But Ms Rowland said more than 100,000 premises still could not access the minimum speed of 25 megabits per second.
The Government on Tuesday announced $700 million over three years to make business-grade optical fibre services more affordable.
At least 240 business fibre zones will be established across Australia, including in 85 regional areas.
Australian small business ombudsman Kate Carnell welcomed the plan, saying 1.4 million businesses across Australia will now be eligible to have fibre installed to their premises at no cost.
“About 700,000 business in 240 business fibre zones, many of which are high streets in regional areas, are also eligible for cheaper plans,” she said.
“This also acts as an incentive to small businesses to ensure they have a digital presence at a time when more consumers are shopping online.”
A Macquarie Telecom spokesman said the move would bring “greater competition” to businesses in regional Australia.
“The planned 6000 jobs will also bring much-needed relief to hardworking Australians stuck in Centrelink queues around the country or worried about joining them,” he said.