Dropping in or dropping out: Online learning in rural Australia

I wondered, quietly, if the NBN drops out, would it mean I’d drop out too?

Wifi: connected, disconnected. Phone hotspot, 3G, SOS only, Zoom is offline, we couldn’t find your document, waiting to download, blank squares, paper clips, a little grey circle chasing its tail. I shut my eyes. I can still see the circle, around and around and around. If you can’t hear me screaming, that’s just the lag. 

It was June 2021. The Delta virus began teeming in pockets of Sydney and my shifts at work were getting precarious. My bank account was emptying, my rent was due and dinner was a toss up between ramen or toast. I thought, fuck this. I packed my bags, locked the bedroom door of my share house and took the first train home. I knew if I was going to continue the semester, it was going to have to be from my grandparent’s dairy farm some 100 kilometres away. That way, even if I was broke, I would be guaranteed a bed to sleep in and a good dinner.

I was welcomed home with the familiar scent of bottlebrush and brisk valley air. I dropped my port on the front steps and my mother pulled me into an embrace. The greetings subdued, and I sat at the kitchen table with my laptop. There was one thing I had not missed while studying in Sydney: the state of the internet. 

I tried re-connecting to the wifi, I tried turning it on and off. I tried hotspot, I tried my mum’s hotspot. Without fail, the internet speeds were abysmal. I couldn’t even load the online speed test for the NBN support guy on the phone. As I sat waiting for screens to load and frozen webpages to come unstuck, I was unsure if I would make it through the semester. I wondered, quietly, if the NBN drops out, would it mean I’d drop out too? 

I’m sure for many reading, the fiery debate shrouding the National Broadband Network and its rollout seems well fizzled out by now. Prime Minister Scott Morrison quietly closed the curtain on the rollout at the end of 2020 to make way for the newer, speedier Telstra 5G network. However, there was little acknowledgement for remote communities that would be waiting for years to come for the new Telstra-owned connection. It was as if ScoMo wanted to sweep the whole thing under the rug, remembered like a fuzzy memory, or tiny loose threads that one could only put together with the right prompts.

So while rural communities wait for their dose of 5G, they are left to rely on the NBN network. This might not be so bad if the NBN connection was rolled out as a blanket coverage, not like the ad hoc patchwork of technology Australia was left with. What I’m saying here is that not all NBN connections are the same. In more populous metropolitan areas, the NBN had been connected through the classic fibre-to-the-node fixture. But back on my grandparent’s dairy, like in so many other parts of rural Australia, connection is set up via the fixed NBN satellite, and it is borderline archaic technology.

The satellite has been the NBN’s cost-cutting solution to combat the missing infrastructure in remote areas to facilitate fibre-optic wiring. But it comes with a myriad of problems. Speeds are barely faster than the former ADSL connections; service frequently drops in and out, and quite literally changes with the weather. What’s more, the satellite has strict data caps due to limited bandwidth. Back home, we can’t access more data, even if we could afford to. Over the 2021 lockdown, we had 60GB a month to cover me and my siblings, the three of us studying from home: I was at uni, my brother in his last years of primary school, and my sister in Year 12. The internet wouldn’t last just two weeks before we were rationing my mum’s hotspot, which was just as slow, and incredibly expensive. 

There were some measures to combat the inequality between connections. To make the NBN satellite more viable, providers tried to initiate something called server priority. Basically, the satellite would try to prioritise ‘essential’ activities like email and online banking over, say, video streaming. However, in a post-COVID world where the web is less a place to surf and more like an IV drip, activities like video streaming are essential, even beyond the case for studying online.

With Telstra licking their lips, readying to acquire the existing NBN copper line infrastructure, there are fears that its monopoly of power will stifle competitive incentives to patch the shoddy connection of the regions with slick and sexy 5G coverage. Why would Telstra need to rush to connect rural Australia if no one else is racing them to it?  This is a fear steeped in reality as last year, Telstra gave 50 per cent of their profits to shareholders and barely coughed up 3 per cent to improve regional connectivity

Currently, there is little pressure from the government or news media to ensure that all Australians are connected, equally connected, and really, no one is talking about it. Perhaps this can be assumed as a symptom of the recent and rapid closure of numerous regional newsrooms across the country, meaning these non-city issues are criminally under-reported, but that is another article

What we do know is that according to the Australian Digital Inclusion Index some 2.5 million Australians remained offline in 2021. The report, funded by Telstra themselves, outlined rural accessibility as the chief issue in this online-offline digital divide. It pointed to an upward trend of rural Australian households connecting to the NBN, implying that the capital to country digital divide was narrowing. However, the report (perhaps intentionally, considering its Telstra patronage) failed to account for those who are fully hooked up, but to connections so poor that they are excluded from the online conversation anyway. 

It needs to be acknowledged that there is more to this than those online vs. offline. There are also those who exist in-between the fault lines of coverage. I was able to come back to Sydney to study, but I fear for my siblings, for those in my hometown, for those out studying from the regions of rural Australia, who will be left to fall through the cracks. 

As we get back to studying on-campus, pausing our conversations while planes whir overhead, it feels as though the dark chapters of COVID-19 are finally coming to a close. But I implore you to think of those studying beyond the metropolitan centres. Many rural students can’t afford to be stuck in a foreign city, far-away from home in the case of another outbreak, and this semester will be continuing (or beginning) their studies online as their only option – they too should be awarded the same connectivity opportunities as their metropolitan counterparts. 

While this is an issue for internet service providers and government to fix, the University could do a much better job of accommodating the student body of rural students, to ensure they are equipped with the proper internet to complete their studies, especially during this — dare I say — unprecedented time. 

Rural Australians are no strangers to isolation. But that will take on a whole new meaning if we are stuck behind the loading screens, locked out of a new world built to deal with and adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.