Australia’s most affluent suburbs are more often gaining access to superior fibre technology under the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout than areas of socio-economic disadvantage, according to new analysis.
Researchers at the NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in the Social Determinants of Health Equity have found a “definite trend”: the poorer the socio-economic conditions, the less frequently homes and businesses are receiving fibre technology.
Instead, poorer areas are much more likely to have what many experts have termed “inferior” technologies, including wireless, HFC or satellite.
Only 29 per cent of homes in the lowest socio-economic tier had been granted fibre technology – either fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) or fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP).
Australian National University’s Dr Ashley Schram, who led the analysis, said that if the “concerning” trend persists it could lead to a “digital divide”, with those socio-economically disadvantaged also being positioned as having a technological disadvantage.
Further, those living in poorer suburbs would be required to foot the bill for an upgrade to superior technology to access faster internet speeds.
“The NBN was meant to address equitable access to the internet for all Australians regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. Looking at this trend, it doesn’t seem to be achieving that,” Dr Schram said.
“If when the NBN rollout is complete we are still seeing the same picture, I would be very concerned. The pattern suggests it’s entrenching inequitable access to better digital infrastructure in higher socio-economic areas.
“If areas already facing disadvantage need to pay for infrastructure upgrades to access the same level of technology in higher socio-economic areas in 10 or 20 years’ time, this will have contributed to a deepening digital divide in Australia.”
She said that Australians already facing geographical isolation and greater disadvantage may “benefit most” from increasingly reliable internet connections to access online education, health and other government services.
“The NBN presented an opportunity to narrow the digital divide and enhance equitable access to internet services in Australia, providing better access to online business opportunities, or healthcare and education services, particularly in rural and regional areas,” Dr Schram said.
Dr Schram noted that NBN Co declined to provide a complete dataset distinguishing between FTTN and FTTP in areas, categorising both under the ‘fibre’ category.
She said further analysis would greatly benefit from more transparency from NBN in this regard.
“We will require more transparency from the NBN to fully understand the factors driving this trend and what exactly determines which areas receive a particular type of technology,” she said.
“The NBN infrastructure isn’t complete and the NBN company still has time to start considering the equity impacts of the rollout, whether intended or not.”
An NBN spokeswoman said it would be rolling out broadband access to every Australian home and business “regardless of location or any other socio-economic profiling”.
She added: “Suggestions that NBN is selectively rolling out the network according to socio-economic profiling is incorrect.”