While the national broadband network (NBN) has ably supported COVID-19 for city dwellers, regional Australians are struggling to work from home, conduct videoconferencing or attend remote learning classes as slow, unreliable broadband isolates them from customers and peers.

Two-thirds of NBN users in regional areas said they were having speed issues over the network, according to a survey of 112 people conducted by regional arts development organisation Regional Arts NSW (RANSW).

RANSW, which supports a network of 14 independent regional arts development organisations covering 90 per cent of NSW, collated the experiences of regional artists and arts organisations in late May and followed up with an NBN-specific survey in late August.

The organisation is “uniquely situated… to obtain first hand, grassroots information about all matters that impact on the arts and cultural sector across the state,” CEO Elizabeth Rogers said in introducing its submission to the ongoing Parliamentary Inquiry Into the Business Case for the NBN and the Experiences of Small Businesses.

Access to the Internet or NBN had affected the sector as much as social-distancing measures, the surveys found, with COVID-19 sparking “a huge spike in demand” amongst the 69 per cent of respondents that were working from home because of the pandemic.

Fully 32 per cent of respondents said they were relying on the NBN for more than 91 per cent of their work and there is, the submission notes, “a general sense that post COVID restrictions, there will still be a larger percentage of work delivered online than there was before the pandemic.”

Despite the importance of remote working for regional NSW residents, however, a large proportion reported that NBN had let them down, time and time again.

Creative professionals were struggling to transfer large music, photographic and video content to clients, with limited upload speeds making satellite services inappropriate due to their data caps and high latency that, one respondent offered, makes them “unsuited”.

“Generally I need to go into town [to get usable broadband],” one respondent said, but this has been hard to find a suitable place since COVID.”

Just 6 per cent of respondents considering their NBN service to be “far superior to their previous Internet service” and 53 per cent were “less than satisfied” with the NBN network, with one respondent conceding that NBN service is “significantly better than what it was, however since it was so bad in the first instance, it is all relative.”

Service issues through COVID-19

The feedback from regional users paints a very different picture to the rosy narrative in Australia’s cities, with broadband minister Paul Fletcher declaring that he was “very impressed” by the performance of the network – and the telecommunications industry – during the “great test” of COVID-19.

NBN Co has worked to fulfil the network’s social remit, boosting speeds while offering free wholesale capacity to retail service providers (RSPs) and expanding coverage to low-income households on the back of declining complaints.

New legislation mandated the company give all Australians a minimum of 25Mbps service from July 1 – but based on the results of the Regional Arts NSW survey, this may prove to be a tall order.

Some 38 per cent of respondents who don’t currently have NBN services said the network is not available at their homes – except for satellite – with one respondent saying they have “no service at all” and has to travel 40km “to get a signal sufficient to use our device usefully”.

Those with NBN services reported a consistently difficult experience, with three-quarters of respondents reporting connectivity issues, 67 per cent reporting problems with speed, 43 per cent reporting capacity issues and 19 per cent complaining about poor supply in regional areas.

Hindering companies’ digital recovery

Previous analyses highlighted the NBN’s potential role in revising business in regional areas, but the lived experience documented by RANSW is much different.

Fully 65 per cent of respondents said they were suffering daily variations in the regularity of their upload and download speeds, while 28 per cent said their NBN service was disrupted more than once per week.

“Connection is intermittent which is hard when you are trying to start an online business to sell your artworks,” one respondent complained, with another noting that “upload internet speeds make video meetings almost impossible” and another saying poor connection quality “is a major hindrance to my business operations”.

And, despite their ongoing problems, fully 82 per cent of respondents said they had received “no additional support” from their RSP during the COVID-19 period.

The responses are a poke in the eye for NBN, which has feted its support for regional Australians and last year established a region-focused business unit after admitting that its “job in regional and remote Australia isn’t over. In fact, far from it.”

The enquiry, being managed by the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network, was originally set to conclude in January but the deadline for submissions was extended in June to provide the opportunity to evaluate the network’s performance during its biggest test yet.