Earlier this year I made the leap from city student life to take a full-time job in Ballarat, Victoria’s third-largest city. I braced for the infamous cold and embraced the charms of life in a gracious gold rush city.
What I didn’t anticipate was finding myself often dropping out of the interconnected world. In such moments you don’t need a ticket to Sovereign Hill to feel like you’re back in the city’s telegraph and Cobb & Co era.
As the big smoke of Western Victoria, Ballarat is home to over 100,000 people and some significant state employers. It also represents the variable reality of mobile and internet connections in rural Australia. While some infrastructure in some parts is “gold-plated”, elsewhere dropouts and snail-pace connections are the norm.
I regularly find myself without mobile phone reception at my desk. In many sections along the road or rail line between Melbourne and Ballarat I’m lucky to have a single bar of activity.
But when I get to my house in Ballarat’s inner north, I’m hit by with lightning fast NBN connection, which leaves my old Melbourne internet in the dust.
And while I can surf the web with ease at home, mobile reception in several other parts of town is terrible. If I try to make a call from the western edge town apparently I sound like I’m underwater.
Variations of this are a common reality outside the capital cities, from Victoria to remote Queensland, towns across the country suffer from patchy communications.
Kristy Sparrow is a mum and farmer from the small central Queensland town of Alpha. She’s spent years battling poor internet connections, eventually founding a group, Better Internet for Rural, Regional & Remote Australia, after recognising the profound effect communications isolation was having on her children’s distance education studies and on her business.
“There definitely needs to be a much greater focus on infrastructure and maintenance,” she says. “When people have an issue they want their concern addressed, they want a call back, they want answers, they don’t want to be stuck in an endless circle of blame game.”
For country residents, there are no easy answers – as ingenious and resourceful as rural folk can be, building your own communications network isn’t an option. All that residents like Sparrow can really do is put their energy into lobbying governments and companies. Sparrow’s done just that, travelling to Canberra to directly lobby ministers and key groups.
Her community relies on the internet for basic services.
“Connectivity is a very important tool used in regional areas to deliver education, health, business and social platforms. Residents in remote areas do not always have the opportunity or ability to have services on their doorstep,” she says.
But decking out a regional town with mobile phone towers is no cheap feat for a phone company – let alone a remote section of a highway or rail line.
There’s no old government-built network in place with mobile towers, unlike the landline network Telstra inherited. As phone companies want to make money off these towers, constructing them in low-density areas can be simply commercially unviable.
“Mobile coverage in Ballarat itself is generally better than the CBD in Melbourne given that it is not as congested. The problems lie further out, and outside the highway footprint,” Committee for Ballarat CEO Melanie Robertson says.
For businesses that fall in a blackspot area, or that involve people doing a lot of travel, the impacts are obvious – customers might not be able to reach them when they need. That could mean lost sales and lost faith in these businesses, limiting revenue and financial sustainability.
But the impact is a lot broader than just those top-line things. The mobile payments market is booming globally – some consumers in countries like China already heavily rely on phones for in-store payments. If Australia follows those trends, small businesses could miss out, a fact even Telstra in country Victoria is ready to admit.
“From supporting sales workforces in the field to small art galleries being able to take credit card payments for the first time, mobile connectivity is becoming more and more vital to small business,” area general manager Steve Tinker said in his announcement of new phone towers for Ballarat’s satellite towns and suburbs.
The blackspot issues are amplified by the fact that big mobile phone companies don’t share towers, which means people on one provider might have great reception in an area, while those on another can struggle. That’s why my workmates on Optus easily scroll through their phones at a lunchtime, while I struggle to find bars on my Telstra connection.
It also means an impact on the ability of country shops to take mobile payments in the future. In an area with only one provider’s tower, one half of a shop’s customers might easily be able to pay with their phones, while another half are scrambling to find some of that other stuff – remember cash?
One solution would have been to force the big players like Telstra share their towers. That’s a proposal that’s been heavily promoted by Vodafone, an outfit that has struggled in Australia with connectivity issues. But the Federal Government’s consumer regulators ruled against that proposal, fearing it would just limit retail competition and lead to phone companies building less towers.
Instead governments opted to inject money and grants directly into building towers to combat blackspots.
“The mobile blackspots programs are gradually ameliorating the issues,” says Robertson, who specifically cites the state government’s $45 million Connecting Regional Communities Program as a key driver. Groups like Robertson’s have lobbied governments, in public and private, for more attention to blackspots.
The Victorian Government’s response has been the rollout of full phone coverage on the Ballarat rail line, which has been met more with relief than wild applause by many commuters. Nonetheless, groups like the Public Transport Users Association, and local spokesperson Ben Lever, say it’ll help make commutes more productive, for both work and study.
“The mobile connectivity on the line has been a long-standing issue, and it’s taken much longer than it should have to get the project off the ground – but it’s good to see the end is now in sight,” Lever says.
While fixing mobile connections has been about consumer relief, broadband has the potential to be genuinely transformational – if done right.
Robertson is quick to extoll Ballarat’s history in communications technologies, stretching from its mining days to the start of the internet. An innocuous-seeming technology park outside Federation University in the south is home to offices for business like IBM, and governments have put money behind innovation spaces, technical education and manufacturing groups.
That’s attracted people like me to take highly computer-driven jobs here, while big employers have often stayed and grown in the town. And it’s that vision that has driven the last decade of federal governments. Prime Ministers from Rudd to Turnbull have claimed they want every Australian town to be places for innovation and new technologies, though they obviously disagreed on the details.
It’s those details that matter though. The rollout of the NBN to the inner suburbs of places like Ballarat and the NSW Central Coast isn’t as hard – they have a critical mass of people and are relatively close to major capitals. It’s still expensive, but nonetheless, it’s doable.
But some places, like Alpha, are too remote, and must rely on fixed wireless or satellite services, like the new Sky Muster network. Despite recent improvements, Sparrow says the service can still be limiting, especially for high bandwidth businesses or health and education needs.
“It can never be as reliable as a fixed line connection. The gap is not really being bridged, as data needs grow, we are concerned that Sky Muster doesn’t have the capacity to also grow, thus widening the divide,” she says.
It’s these infrastructure challenges that can ultimately make or break country towns in the future, and that impacts more people than we might first think. Government and providers’ responses to these challenges could determine whether people like me continue to spend times in these towns, and whether jobs continue to exist to support them.
“We need government and the private sector to keep in mind that while less people live in these areas, enormous sectors of the population will travel through them at some time,” Sparrow says.