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People are being required to work from home. Students are doing lessons online. Telehealth consultations are now bulk-billed. All this will change the way we use the internet forever.

According to NBN Co, broadband demand is skyrocketing but they have everything under control. OK. So they and the telcos have upped their data capacity and, for those with fast and reliable broadband, all is well. But that’s not the point.

What about the third or more of the population with a dud FTTN (old copper wires) connection?

No amount of extra capacity at the telco end will help those customers who are on the wrong side of a digital divide. You can’t make FTTN run faster by throwing more data at it.

Essentially, there are the lucky Australians (those who have a 21st century NBN connection) and the unlucky Australians (those stuck with an inferior service that needs to be upgraded).

My principle concern right now is about the impact on the productivity of people working from home, which will flow through to businesses and the economy.

I’m also concerned about the mental health of people battling with poor internet connections. It’s frustrating enough when your movie buffers, but what if the system fails when you’re trying to send in an assignment or a report to the boss who has been hounding you for it all day?

The impact of COVID-19 will most likely continue for quite a long while and therefore so will the need for better broadband in people’s homes. What’s more, when we emerge from this crisis, the likelihood is that a good many bosses will have become so accustomed to their employees working from home this will become a permanent thing — even if it’s only a day or so a month.

We could even see enhanced interest in decentralisation as more employers realise they don’t need to have all their workers located in expensive CBD offices. Regional areas have already seen an increase in interest from people looking to leave our congested capital cities over the past few years.

The government has made a welcome move by allowing bulk-billing for online medical and mental health consultations. There’s only so much that can be done over the phone, of course. Doctors need high-quality video for the more complex cases. But the service will be of immense benefit to people in rural and regional areas, as well as people with disabilities, who have difficulties making it in to a doctor’s surgery. This is a temporary move, but hopefully it will become permanent.

TelSoc, which I joined late last year as vice-president, has urged the government to include fixing the NBN in its stimulus funding.

We’ve called on the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission to consider “the inequity of access and affordability of broadband and other telecommunications services”. We’ve also recommended that the government fund NBN Co to “enable it to employ suitable retrenched workers, retrain them as required, and deploy them to begin upgrading problematic NBN connections as a national stimulus measure”.

These are necessary steps to create a more digitally-enabled community and economy.

It makes sense to include a technology upgrade for the NBN in our post- pandemic planning. In fact, the sooner NBN Co starts the planning the sooner people can expect to see an improvement in their home internet connections.

Replacing the FTTN section of the NBN will need to occur sooner or later — so why not do it now and create employment opportunities for some of the many people who are progressively becoming unemployed?

Even if the government simply made an in-principle commitment and NBN Co started the planning now, this would give industry and people generally greater confidence in the future than currently exists.

Over in New Zealand, where they persisted with fibre, 87% of premises will have access to a full-fibre connection by the end of 2022. Chorus (the equivalent of NBN Co) is already delivering gigabit speeds to many of its customers. What’s more, over time they found ways to reduce their per premises installation cost by around 40%.

If we learn from the Kiwis, we can roll out fibre here for far less than it was costing back when the NBN project began. It would probably wouldn’t cost more than continuing to use problematic old copper wires and run-down Pay-TV cables with their associated remediation expenses.

We need the government to accept that their erstwhile colleagues made a mistake in dumping the original fibre-based NBN. It’s as simple as that.

Laurie Patton is vice-president of TelSoc and the former CEO/executive director of Internet Australia, on whose behalf he launched an ongoing campaign for #BetterBroadband.

Peter Fray

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