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Outback Communities Authority plans NBN extension

Plans to scope privately-funded satellite alternative for 8% of Australia

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The Outback Communities Authority (OCA), a government agency that provides services to remote areas in the Australian State of South Australia, will shortly endorse a strategy to build a wireless network for remote areas of the State.

The OCA administers parts of South Australia where, thanks to very low population density, no conventional local government area is present.

“We cover eight per cent of Australia, and we're in that part of Australia that won't get fixed wireless or fibre-to-the premises from the NBN,” General Manager Mark Sutton told The Register.

But Sutton's not complaining: he understands that the huge areas administered by the OCA, and its tiny population, make anything other than satellite broadband services economically nonsensical.

He also knows that well-intentioned designs for electronically-delivered services don't work over satellite. “'We know school of the air does not work well,” he said, as latency means audio and video don't synch during lessons. Tele-medicine can also be problematic.

Sutton wants to take charge so such services work better and can improve the communities OCA servces.

“Part of living in the bush is that we accept what we are given,” he said. “If we could get better we could take it. We are not demanding that the government provide it because we think that is unfair. What we are saying is 'Thanks for what you will give us with the satellites, but we will get more ourselves.”

That 'more' is described in a needs analysis document written by Noven Purnell-Webb, owner of IT consultancy MageData and as of early 2012 a new resident of Beltana http://goo.gl/maps/YKXwL, a hamlet six hours' drive north of Adelaide.

When Purnell-Webb moved to Beltana he struggled to connect to the internet, eventually using an unsupported antenna to hook up with Telstra's NextG network for wireless broadband services. That arrangement works, but not well, leading Purnell-Webb to explore other options. He also wrote to OCA in the hope better connections could be arranged.

Purnell-Webb quickly found NBNCo would not help, as its planning uses population density as the metric for planning its rollout. But NBNCo was open to allowing connections to its nearest point of interconnect in the regional town of Port Augusta.

That possibility got Purnell-Webb thinking, and when his correspondence with OCA yielded an enthusiastic response and, eventually, a request to compose a strategy for how technology and online services, a plan began to take shape.

OCA won't release that plan as it must first be approved by the State government, but Purnell-Webb and Sutton have both described it to The Register, outlining how it recommends further study on the feasibility of a privately-operated network that would create a spur from the NBN to offer remote communities faster Internet service than that provided by NBNCo's satellites.

Sutton described the document Purnell-Webb penned as “targeted”, rather than taking into account the needs of the wider community OCA serves. But the OCA board agrees with the ideas it raises, so will soon take action to advance the idea for its own network.

“We'll go to public consultation, get wholesale support for a strategic direction, then seek investment from funding bodies in government or a philanthropic body for a feasibility study,” Sutton said. That study could, he expects, be complete by early 2014.

Sutton said the idea has not yet been fleshed out to the point at which he can predict the technologies for the job, but admitted “broadband or internet access is not feasible for everyone, but we can probably do it in the major secondary corridors. Telstra has 3G on the main highways, we would look at major through roads.” Purnell-Webb imagines those links could power community hotspots to provide last mile connections.

OCA also has ideas on how to structure an entity to operate the network. “We work through communities for delivery of service,” Sutton said. “For example, some run their own water supply, with our support.” OCA is familiar with that kind of private-public-partnership and Sutton said they are a possible model for network operations.

Tourists may also prove a source of revenue. “You can lip-read every tourist who turns up in front of a pub – they immediately complain there's no mobile coverage,” Sutton said. Charging a few dollars a day for access may therefore be a money-spinner.

Purnell-Webb believes more bandwidth will also mean more tourists, as local business create richer web presences that attract more visitors. ”Most businesses out here are not even on Google Places,” he said. Better internet connections could encourage more use of online marketing.

OCA may also win a dividend from its own network, in the form of reduced service delivery costs.

“We don't deserve a handout,” Sutton concludes. “But just because we are in the middle of nowhere does not mean we cannot have this.” ®

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