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Better broadband needed for rural, regional health

Limitations in the roll out of satellite technology are impeding the take-up of the National Broadband Network (NBN) in regional, rural, and remote areas, the AMA has told a Senate committee.

In a written submission to the Joint Standing Committee on the NBN, AMA President Dr Michael Gannon said that all Australians, regardless of where they live or work, should have equitable access to high-speed and reliable internet services.

“Country Australians must have access to NBN services that enable them to conduct the same level of business via the internet as their city counterparts,” Dr Gannon said.

“These NBN services must also have the capacity to meet their future internet needs.

“This is particularly important for providers of vital health services. Data allowances and speeds must be sufficient to enable two-way applications for e-health and telehealth, including the transfer of high-resolution medical images, medical education, videoconferencing, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), and other applications.

“However, it is widely acknowledged that there are significant cost, data allowance, and speed differences between fixed and satellite broadband services, putting some regional and remote areas at a significant disadvantage.

“While NBNCo (nbn) has advised the AMA that it is looking at how some of these issues can be addressed for critical services like health care, changes are yet to be detailed at this time.”

Dr Gannon said that nbn had advised the AMA that it was working to identify medical facilities and general practices within the satellite footprint in rural and remote areas that would qualify as Public Interest Premises (PIPs), and therefore be granted access to higher data allowances.

“This is a small step in the right direction, but the AMA remains concerned that, even as PIPs, these medical facilities will still not have sufficient data allowance to be able to fully utilise the e-health and telehealth opportunities that are taken for granted in metropolitan areas,” he said.

Last month, Minister for Regional Development and Regional Communications Fiona Nash announced that Medicare rebates will be paid for rural and remote Australians to access psychological counselling through teleconferencing.

Senator Nash said that mental health was a significant issue in rural and remote areas, but lack of easy access to a nearby psychologist often meant mental health issues went untreated.

“It’s difficult and sometimes impossible for rural and remote Australians to attend face-to-face counselling,” Senator Nash told the National Press Club.

“Today, I announce rural and remote Australians will, for the first time, have access to psychology through teleconferencing paid for by Medicare.

“This will mean rural and remote Australians can use Skype, FaceTime or video calling to access psychologists and psychiatrists all over Australia from their home or a local medical centre.”

Many Australians who were going without mental health treatment will now receive it, Senator Nash said, praising Health Minister Greg Hunt for delivering the first outcome from the Regional Australia Ministerial Taskforce.

Despite criticism of the speed of the nbn’s SkyMuster satellite service, Senator Nash said it was fast enough to deliver the service, and said people in the bush understood that they were not going to have the same internet speeds as their city counterparts.

“For those wondering, high definition video conferencing requires internet speed of just 1.5 megabits a second. A typical Sky Muster plan delivers enough data for 66 hours a month of high definition video conferencing,” she said.

“Regional people are very pragmatic. They know they are not going to get the same equivalence across a whole range of areas their city cousins do, but they want access to services so they can get on their lives.

“The (internet) speed you are going to get in the western parts of Queensland is not going to be the same that you get in the CBD in Brisbane.

“They (rural Australians) get that … as I am travelling around and talking to people in the regions, I’m not talking about the speed, I’m talking, ‘Can you do what you want to do in the regions through your internet connection?’

“By and large, most of them are happy with the service they’ve got.”

Maria Hawthorne