Regional and rural internet services are set to receive a boost worth $750 million as the government rushes to make up for past “mistakes” before the election.
Next week’s federal budget will commit $480 million to improve internet speeds in regional, rural and remote areas, and the taxpayer-owned NBN Co will be kicking in an additional $270 million of its funds.
About $60 billion has already been poured into the NBN over the past nine years by federal taxpayers.
“This means more people can be served by NBN fixed wireless; it means higher speed services on the NBN fixed wireless network; and it means higher amounts of data can be used by households and business customers,” Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher said.
“The upgrade will expand the fixed wireless footprint coverage by up to 50 per cent, enabling 120,000 additional premises to access fixed wireless services instead of Sky Muster satellite services.”
RMIT associate professor Mark Gregory welcomed the news of the long-overdue upgrades.
But he’s wary of the timing of the announcement.
What NBN internet upgrade promises for consumers
The government says the planned upgrade will see NBN offer higher-speed services across the fixed wireless network.
About 750,000 premises will be able to access speeds of 100 megabits per second (mbps) after the upgrade.
Additionally, 85 per cent of these premises will have access to a faster 250 mbps service.
The government says this means an increase of speed during the “network busy hour” from 6 Mbps to 50 Mbps, even for customers who do not order a higher-speed plan.
Independent telecommunications analyst Paul Budde said any upgrade to the NBN for regional areas is good news, and the promised upgrades will prevent internet services from becoming overloaded and unreliable in the short term.
Like the suburbs, internet in regional Australia is “hit or miss”, Mr Budde said.
“It’s not that everybody in regional Australia has a bad service, but in general they have a poor-quality service,” he said.
“Particularly during COVID times, that became apparent.
“When people are working from home, studying from home, then you need a lot of capacity in the network in order for everybody to have a good service.”
However, he said the increased popularity of the NBN upgrades will eventually cancel out the benefits, as more customers using the service will slow it down.
It means additional network investments may be required, he said.
“It’s quite possible that the current upgrade will not be sufficient for the future, when more and more people are using it,” Mr Budde said.
Long-overdue fix for multibillion-dollar ‘mistake’
The NBN investment announcement shows the government is trying to clean up the mess it made of the national internet service after it came into power in 2013, Dr Gregory said.
Then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull decided to opt for Fibre to the Node technology (FTTN) instead of Fibre to the Premises (FTTP).
Dr Gregory labelled this move “the largest single waste of public funds in Australia’s history”, which effectively set back the NBN by 10 years.
“This government has made a number of mistakes, and the mistakes have cost tens of billions,” he said.
In 2021, the Morrison government admitted that many of the NBN’s “obsolete” copper-based connections needed to be upgraded – despite the NBN rollout being officially completed only the year before.
Before the announcement of the $750 million investment, about $60 billion had already been poured into the initial rollout and subsequent upgrades.
But Australia’s fixed broadband service is currently ranked 65 internationally, according to internet speed-tester Ookla.
“The decisions were made by this government, and they’re yet to fix the problems that were caused early in their term,” Dr Gregory said.
Telecommunications is an essential service necessary to meet people’s education, business, social and health needs, he said.
Dr Gregory said the government should have focused on upgrading the NBN to meet demand long before the current election campaign.
“Telecommunications should not be part of the election cycle, it’s an essential service,” he said.
“[The government] should be reacting to the demand and the need to ensure that Australia can participate in the global digital economy.”