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Will the bush ever have equitable broadband access?

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As some readers may know, the AMA released a Position Statement in January calling for better access to high speed broadband for regional, rural and remote health care. This Position Statement was developed in response to concerns by rural doctors that were highlighted in the findings of the AMA Rural Health Issues Survey conducted in April 2016.

The survey, which sought the views of rural doctors across Australia to identify key solutions to improving regional, rural and remote health care, found that access to high speed internet services was the number one priority for rural GPs and the second highest priority among all rural doctors.

The AMA Council of Rural Doctors, at its recent videoconference meeting in February, discussed this issue with representatives of the National Broadband Network Company (nbn) directly. We were told that at the time of the survey, the widely criticised Interim Satellite Service was providing internet services to regional and remote Australia. Since then, nbn has launched the first Sky Muster satellite, and will soon bring on board a second satellite that will offer business grade services around the second quarter of this year.

Currently 68,000 Australians are connected to the Sky Muster service, which has undergone a range of fixes and improvements since it first began offering services on 28 April last year, and according to the nbn this has led to far fewer drop-outs than used to occur. This is good news for those relying on satellite internet. The speed of these services will be either 12/1mbps (upload/download) or 25/5mbps, depending upon what plan you choose.

While these speeds are nowhere near the speeds available in the big cities that use fibre technology (up to 100/40mbps), they are sufficient for a range of uses, and should allow doctors, health services and hospitals to upload health summaries to the My Health record, undertake telemedicine via videoconference and exchange high resolution images. These speeds should also enable doctors to do business with Government, comply with Government requirements, participate in online continuing professional development and education activities, and reference online help such as clinical decision-making tools and other support.

Following our strong comments about data allowances, we understand that nbn is working on making eligible health centres, practices and large medical facilities Public Interest Premises. This will potentially afford them a higher data allowance (150GB per month).

Now comes the big HOWEVER. Will the data allowance be sufficient to do all this? There is much concern in the bush about the ‘data drought’. I understand the satellite technology has inherent limitations that restrict the amount of data available. There is a real need for ‘business style’ plans to be made available, recognising the unique nature of the speeds and data allowances that businesses require.

So, while the nbn will clearly deliver improved broadband access for satellite users, it is hard to see how it can keep up with the needs of an increasingly digitally enabled health system. It’s an area that the Government will need to give much greater thought to.

What I would also like to see happen over time is an extension wherever possible of the fibre and fixed wireless services into the satellite footprint and/or the introduction of alternative technologies to lessen the reliance on satellite for those living in rural and remote Australia. Maybe then, in time, we can say there is equitable access to broadband for all Australians.