A sweeping NBN Co subsidy program will see the company waiving wholesale and other fees to help connect families that haven’t been able to afford the broadband services necessary to support home schooling due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Created by consultation with over 50 retail service providers (RSPs) and consumer group the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), the package for low-income households fills out a series of measures that also includes free service upgrades to help GP clinics adopt telehealth, and assistance for small businesses.

All told, the six-month package commits NBN to $150m in support measures including $50m in relief for low-income households, $50m to help small businesses access a number of business-grade NBN services, and $50m to identify low-income households that do not have active NBN services at home.

“We want to do what we can to ensure all school children have access to the internet during this period,” NBN Co CEO Stephen Rue said in announcing the measures.

“They are about keeping emergency and essential services, including telehealth, connected… [and] give small and medium businesses the resilience they need to stay connected and emerge in a position to grow again in the future.”

Relief for families includes a waiver of the company’s $37 per month wholesale charge for 25/5Mbps services – which, the company hopes, will be passed on by RSPs that will be able to offer discounted service packages to ensure that even students in low-income households can participate in online schooling.

Industry reform

Major carriers have also announced support packages to help disadvantaged students get online, with Telstra offering thousands of free mobile SIMs and Optus partnering with the Australian Business and Community Network in a program that is expected to reach 6,000 students nationally.

The relief package earned plaudits from Labor, with Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland welcoming the NBN Co announcement as “a welcome gesture” and urging NBN Co to “offer certainty” for families by extending the subsidies beyond the current September 30 deadline.

“The current funding allocation appears to comfortably allow for that to occur,” Rowland said.

The NBN Co measures come as Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communications for Cyber Safety and the Arts, joined Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton to announce a set of telecommunications hardship principles agreed between the government and the telecommunications industry.

By prioritising connection and restoration of services to vulnerable Australians – and addressing premises where there are no other fixed or mobile services – the six principles “provide a consistent baseline across industry that will help customers stay connected,” Fletcher said, “including those who are experiencing hardship”.

The principles commit the industry to helping consumers and small businesses in hardship by providing payment plans or hardship agreements; not disconnecting customers without their agreement; deferring debt recovery action; providing “appropriate hibernation options”; providing “clear, up-to-date and readily available information” about their arrangements; and prioritising connections, service restoration and repairs, and connections “for those who need them most”.

Supporting back-to-school

NBN Co’s support package is tied as online learning moves from niche novelty to mainstream practice overnight, with students and parents in states like Victoria and Western Australia recently commencing studies from home as Term 2 commences.

Students will soon return to school in NSW, where the Department of Education has been co-ordinating with schools to ensure disadvantaged students have access to devices and Internet connectivity.

In other states, a patchwork of strategies has created widespread confusion as teachers wrestle with disrupted timelines, moving lessons online and strategies for reaching those who can’t afford broadband access at home.

ACCAN was pleased with the results of its collaboration with NBN Co, with CEO Teresa Corbin noting that the initiatives recognise that “the Internet is an essential service for work, study, and accessing government and telehealth services.”

“NBN Co is to be applauded for laying the groundwork to keep struggling families and households connected during this difficult time”, she said, adding that it was up to RSPs to “build on these foundations to deliver financial relief to those in need.”

The relief package comes as the combination of increased working from home and home schooling pushes NBN data consumption to record surges, with peak upload throughput – a strong indicator of the volume of return videoconferencing traffic – doubling compared to baseline during the week of Monday 6 April.

By supporting the provision of that access, NBN Co will also fill in gaps in its coverage map as it races to complete its rollout by the end of June.