On Thursday 9 October, several staff members of the National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA) participated in the Broadband for the Bush Alliance (B4BA) network meeting via teleconference.
The meeting was addressed by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Communications, Paul Fletcher MP, who gave an overview of the Government's strategy for Connecting the Bush. He also spoke on the release of a database of approximately 6,000 locations in rural, regional and remote Australia which have been nominated as having poor (or zero) mobile coverage. The Government's $100 million Mobile Black Spot Programme will soon call for tenders to provide new or improved mobile base stations across these locations.
The NRHA has consistently advocated for connectivity equity between rural, remote and metropolitan Australia and supports the B4BA in its advocacy for practical measures to bridge the digital divide between the country and city. The NRHA is applying for formal membership in B4BA.
Improving mobile telephony in rural and remote Australia is a critical issue. The 2011-2012 Regional Telecommunications Review (RTR) notes that not only do mobile phone services continue to be "the major growth area in the Australian telecommunications market", but that people and businesses without reliable mobile phone coverage are finding it "increasingly difficult to fully participate" in the digital economy.
While improved mobile telecommunications will help many in rural and remote communities – including those who don’t have a computer – to access the internet it is critical for high-speed broadband services to be accessible in the bush.
Currently 124,000 premises in rural and remote Australia have fixed wireless access and the number of fixed wireless base stations is being expanded to provide better coverage for a number of areas that were previously going to be served by the long term satellite services. Mr Fletcher also advised the B4BA meeting that the new long term satellites will deliver much better broadband services than are currently available.
For rural and remote communities, telehealth services, such as video-conferencing, are emerging as effective ways to complement local health services. Such technology can deliver health services to remote communities, reduce the need for patients to travel and provide educational and training support for remote healthcare workers. Mobile telephone connections, even if available in these areas, cannot be relied upon to provide the bandwidth required for these sorts of health applications.
No matter what the technology, consideration must be given to the fact that rural organisations such as educational facilities, health services and small businesses in some cases require low-cost shared services rather than personal retail plans. The NRHA and the B4BA are calling on the Government to provide equitable broadband for rural and remote communities through appropriate and cost-effective 'Last mile' solutions.