At the Hidden Valley community centre in the hot, dusty fringes of Alice Springs, Tim MacNamara is sitting at a table under a hard-working air conditioner, struggling with a satellite internet connection that dips in and out, taking long minutes to load a page on his laptop.
He’s trying to look at the NBN coverage map of Alice Springs in earth view. The landscape on the map is the sandy orange colour of the soil people scuff off their shoes as they come into the centre, threaded with the rocky brown ridges of the surrounding ranges and a network of bitumen roads, all knitted web-like around the centre of town.
Hidden Valley is at the edge of the web, tucked into a small valley among rocky outcrops. Backing onto bushland, the town camp is just 1.5km from downtown Alice, and borders Sadadeen, where brick apartment blocks form one of the most densely populated suburbs in the small centre.
When MacNamara, a local artist and community worker, finally downloads the map, it’s washed with large sections coloured purple – areas where NBN broadband internet should be, at least in theory, available.
Across the road from Hidden Valley, all the properties have access to fibre to the node (FTTN) connections, a combination of fibre optic and copper cables. But the purple ends abruptly where the road separates Sadadeen and Hidden Valley.
“We all living in this town,” says MacNamara.
“We should all have NBN connected to our community, to our town camp.”
As the Northern Territory closes its borders and health services anxiously await the arrival of coronavirus in regional and remote communities, advocates warn that the deep digital divide that still separates many rural and regional Australians from the rest of the world, marginalising Indigenous Australians in particular, now looms as an urgent danger to the health of some of the most vulnerable populations during this crisis.
Hidden Valley is one of 16 town camps scattered around Alice Springs, all within 10km of the downtown precinct. A fluctuating population of between 1300 and 3000 people live in the camps, which have anywhere between two and 47 houses.
Seven of the town camps have no broadband internet.
“The assumption is that everybody has a mobile and secondly, that everybody has a mobile with credit and charge on it,” says Teresa Corbin, CEO of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network. “But that, of course, is not the case.”
Tim Saul, head of NBN Local in South Australia and the Northern Territory, says a lack of existing infrastructure has delayed the set up of NBN and led to the camps being left until after the rest of the town was connected.
Saul says he hopes to connect the camps this year, but installation could now be delayed by the coronavirus crisis.
Another five of the town camps rely on satellite internet. Many residents can’t afford an internet connection to their house, and at camps like Hidden Valley up to 400 residents share a single WiFi hotspot connected to the town camp community centre.
People without access to the internet also have limited access to “good, clear information about what’s going on”, and that could contribute to a “sense of public panic”, says Matt Fisher, senior research fellow at the Southgate institute for Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University.
Corbin is deeply concerned that families in these communities could be effectively isolated from critical health and education services if they have to self-isolate during the coronavirus crisis.
Their concerns are echoed by James Ward, director of the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Queensland. He says communication via phone and internet will be crucial in “restrict(ing) the inflow of people to clinics where other people may be sitting with the virus”.
Experts warn Aboriginal communities must be prioritised during pandemics, with many Aboriginal people suffering chronic disease and living in poverty, factors that make them more vulnerable to the virus. Many of them recall the terrible toll the 2009 swine flu epidemic took on Indigenous populations, who suffered a death rate six times that of the non-Indigenous population.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has advised Indigenous people over the age of 50 to stay at home, and the number of coronavirus cases in the Northern Territory increased to 19 on Tuesday.
Saul says NBN Co has contacted state and territory governments to offer emergency internet and telecommunications services for communities during the coronavirus crisis and is awaiting instructions.
Locals and observers are hopeful, but nonetheless sceptical after years of lobbying to get the town camps connected.
“The need is now and the need to provide these services shouldn’t be overlooked with the mentality that at some point in the future, they’re going to have it so they’ll be okay,” says Chansey Paech, the Northern Territory Government Member for Namatjira, whose electorate covers hundreds of thousands of kilometres, including all the southern town camps in Alice Springs.
“We don’t do it for other services or other places or people in the community. So we shouldn’t be doing it for people in town camps,” he says.
Many town camp residents without internet access go into the Alice Springs commercial area to use the internet, but this may not be an option if self-isolation rules are enforced in the town. Services like the local library have already closed in response to the coronavirus crisis.
“You have to actually go into town and sit near a Telstra payphone or go into McDonald’s (to use the internet),” says Kathleen Craig, an Eastern Arrernte woman from Charles Creek town camp. “I just it makes me angry, actually, how people on town camps are treated.”
“It’s just like ‘town camps, blackfellas, who cares?’,” says Craig.
“That’s always been their solution to everything. You know, out of sight, out of mind.”
The satellite internet currently in use at five town camps is unsuited to large numbers of users and can fail entirely when multiple people try to log on at the same time, says Jennifer McFarland from the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service (CAYLUS).
McFarland’s experience is supported by Ellie Rennie, co-director of RMIT’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre, who says one satellite connection wouldn’t be able to cover more than three common family activities such as “online education, running a business, plus entertainment” at the same time.
“It’s just simply not enough for a family,” she says. “So if you’re thinking about the number of people going through a town camp at certain times, a satellite connection probably won’t cut it.”
Saul, from NBN Co, says slow and faulty internet connections are the fault of the service provider, and not the satellite technology.
“We do have some people who work for NBN on satellite as well” says Saul. It’s a “great service”.
The Federal Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, Paul Fletcher, says whether an area receives fibre to the node, fibre to the premises or satellite internet is “based on consistently applied design rules including proximity to existing infrastructure, population density, topography, geography, and cost”.
Paech questions whether town camp residents on satellite connections have been excluded from the rollout because they wouldn’t provide a good return on the infrastructure investment.
“The NBN is a nationalized information technology network. However, it’s being treated like it’s purely a commercial operation,” he says.
“When we start going, ‘there’s not enough people to warrant connection to a satisfactory telecommunications and internet system’. We start to have problems because we’re then choosing to put profits over people.”
Many town camp residents live well below the poverty line. The youth service CAYLUS estimates that approximately half of town camp residents have zero income due to lack of work and inability to comply with Centrelink requirements.
“Anyone with an income is probably (supporting) minimum 10 other people,” says McFarland.
It is hard to meet Centrelink requirements “if you’ve got English as a third or fourth language, if your written English is poor. If you don’t have any connectivity or any way of accessing services,” she says.
“What we’ve actually found is that the poorest people in Australia are paying the highest percentage of their income to stay connected,” says the communications consumer network’s Teresa Corbin.
Where FTTN is available, many town camp residents can’t afford to connect their houses at current prices, and for those who only have access to satellite internet, costs are higher.
To reach speeds up to 50 megabytes per second, the entry level package on a satellite connection is $75 a month and is capped at 100 gigabytes download. For the same speed on a FTTN connection, a basic package would cost around $60 a month and include unlimited downloads.
Corbin is calling for a $30 a month plan across all technologies for people on low incomes.
As demands on the network increase, NBN Co announced last week an increased allowance of 45 gigabytes per SkyMuster and SkyMuster Plus plan, as well as unmetered usage for some applications.
Paech welcomes the change, but says it is an acknowledgement that “Skymuster is significantly higher in its price structure. So it’s creating a second kind of tier and a second class for people who don’t (have access to fibre infrastructure).”
“Here in Alice Springs, fibre runs right past every one of those town camps in Alice Springs,” he says. “There’s a line that runs right past. So it’s disappointing that they can’t just tap into it.
“These are suburbs of Alice Springs, is the way that I look at it, they’re actually surrounded by suburbs of Alice Springs,” he says. “They’re just populated with Aboriginal people. So you have to begin to ask yourself, Well, why are they being denied this opportunity? Why aren’t they hooked up to the NBN?”
Fisher argues that the story playing out in the town camps of Alice Springs illustrates a larger story of the deepening digital divide in Australia.
In research he completed in 2017, he found that only 30% of those in the lowest areas of socioeconomic disadvantage had fibre to the premises or fibre to the node.
He also found there was a “gradient” across all levels of socioeconomic status. “The higher the socio economic status of your area, the more likely you are to have the high performing fibre and new fibre technologies.”
NBN Co has allocated around $4.5 billion towards upgrading the NBN network following the completion of the initial build. Saul says two of the town camps that currently rely on satellite will be upgraded to fixed line broadband.
Shirleen Campbell, a slight, energetic woman from Hoppy’s town camp, campaigned for more than ten years for her community to have internet access and a phone box installed, but when the NBN rollout came through the town a few years ago, Hoppy’s camp wasn’t connected.
“Living on a town camp, we never actually get our voices heard unless we push for it,” says Campbell.
Hoppy’s camp is on the other side of town from Hidden Valley, and is a five minute walk from the centre of Alice Springs. The small camp has 13 houses arranged in a ring beside the dry Todd River.
“At the end of the day, it should be equal,” she says. Hoppy’s camp missed out on a fixed line connection because the camp had never had phone lines, and no trenches or cables for NBN Co to connect to, but Saul says there are plans to connect the camp.
“You gotta have the money to put in wirings and pipelines and all this stuff,” she says. “It is hard.”
Eventually Campbell took matters into her own hands. She designed a payphone with a satellite dish mounted on top, and with the help of the Centre for Appropriate Technology she got it installed at the centre of the ring of houses at the camp.
“It looks tough, built tough. It might look like just a big silver box, but you know, it has internet connection. You know, kids use it for homework, some, you know, just to get on YouTube, just watching kids stuff,” she says.
“The assumption is that everybody has a mobile and secondly, that everybody has a mobile with credit and charge on it. But that, of course, is not the case,” says Corbin.
While 5G technology being rolled out in urban centres could provide an alternative to the NBN, it is unlikely to reach regional Australia any time soon.
Ellie Rennie, co-director of RMIT’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre, says 5G “works in places where you’ve got a lot of people and a lot of internet subscriptions and mobile internet subscriptions. I’m not expecting it to be a technology that is widely available across the country”.
“5G is not going to improve telecommunications for people who don’t have it to start with,” says Paech.
NBN Co says it is “currently consulting with stakeholders in the Alice Springs area including the Tangentyere Council and community members to help inform its decision on the most appropriate way to deploy its network to service Town Camps in this region.”
In a statement responding to questions from The Citizen, the company said it “rejects any suggestions of discrimination in relation to the rollout of the network and technology decisions in Alice Springs Town Camps”.
Research help from Sabella Turner and Noelene McMillan. The reporter was supported in her field research for this story by a Michael Gordon Fellowship, facilitated by the Melbourne Press Club.
An edited version of this story is co-published by the NITV and SBS.
*This story was updated after initial publication to clarify several elements after representations from NBN Co.