Small rural telcos surge as NBN misses mark

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Small rural telcos surge as NBN misses mark

Regional providers take advantage of bandwidth demand.

NBN Co is facing increased competition from a growing band of grassroots telcos that are bringing superior high-speed internet services to regional and rural communities.

Despite 80 percent of the NBN rollout to date occurring in regional and rural Australia – including twin Sky Muster satellites to bring broadband to all corners of Australia – a large number of mostly fixed wireless operators have sprung up in towns across the country.

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) counts 29 independent fixed wireless operators servicing local areas across the country.

A map maintained by Better Internet for Regional, Rural and Remote (BIRRR) Australia, however, suggests over 130 independent network operators have set up in NBN and mobile blackspots.

Their numbers have likely been bolstered by the fact that the government does not consider them as competitors to the NBN for the purposes of its planned broadband tax. (NBN Co and other industry players disagree with this assessment).

And they could be further bolstered by initiatives such as the $50 million blackspots scheme unveiled by the NSW government last week.

The state goverment specifically said it was interested in funding "small technology companies that can deliver at a very local, granular level".

One such communications provider, Just ISP, saw huge demand for internet services in NBN and 4G blackspots. It is interested in taking advantage of the NSW government funds.

Field Solutions' - which owns Just ISP - CEO Andrew Roberts told iTnews he was hoping for funding to help build a network of microwave towers around NSW to provide backhaul and then community-based internet access. 

“We have networks in Moree, Narrabri, Gunnedah and Goondiwindi where there are multi-million dollar organisations farming cotton and working off Telstra 4G cards.

"We have councils coming to us faster than we can deal with them at the moment. They want us to provide shire-wide services.

"If a group of farmers want to get together and work with us we will put a tower in and provide them with services."

Roberts said he was awaiting more details of the NSW government fund to progress an application.

Ace Internet Services - based in the NSW Southern Highlands - is providing schools in its local area with 500Mbps internet services.

"We brought an AARNet connection into Moss Vale and we use very high speed microwave to feed schools," managing director Allen Cupitt told iTnews

He also provides wireless broadband services in local communities under the brand 'AirStream', and is an NBN reseller.

“Even with the NBN coming through we are growing our urban air service that offers NBN-like speeds using fixed wireless,” Cupitt said.

“We have had people go to the NBN and come back to [AirStream]."

Other regional ISPs have told iTnews that the NBN is not meeting the requirements of local communities.

Parkes-based Bitwave Networks launched fixed wireless services in October 2015.

The company’s web site consists of a "coming soon" placeholder but company head John England told iTnews they had "not felt the need to advertise".

"We operate in a small community so word of mouth is very effective advertising around here," he said.

Bitwave is providing wireless internet access from Alectown - north of Parkes - through Parkes and Forbes and west to Jernalong.

Today it has 150 customers, about 60 percent residential, and also supplies IP transit services to both the Forbes and Parkes Shire Councils.

Its most popular service is a 35Mbps service with 250GB of quota for $89 a month.

England said the NBN had arrived in the area some months ago, but Bitwave had no plans to become a reseller.

“We won’t be offering [NBN] because of the price, but mostly because we can offer service level agreements on our services, and you can’t do that with NBN," he said.

“Consumers like us because our contention ratios are half those of the NBN: customers typically get 35Mbps all the time.”

NBN Co yesterday acknowledged problems with the way it has approached customer education and sign-ups in regional and rural Australia.

It said it has set up a new nationwide team of "community relations professionals" called 'NBN Local'. 

The team "will spend time on-the-ground in regional locations around the country to better understand the telecommunications needs at a community level," the network builder said in a statement.

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