Wi-Fi And NBN Lessons From An Open Source Town

Wi-Fi And NBN Lessons From An Open Source Town

Free public Wi-Fi is still a relative rarity in Australia’s major cities, so how is it possible to make it viable in a town with less than 400 people? Newstead offers some interesting lessons about Wi-Fi, the National Broadband Network (NBN), open source and how to manage community projects.

All pictures by Dave Hall from his presentation.

IT consultant and enthusiastic Newstead resident Dave Hall gave a presentation at the first day of LCA2012, discussing his proposition that Newstead, a small community of 400 or so some two hours North of Melbourne, might be able to lay claim to being “Australia’s most open source town”. With a community web site running on Drupal and a free Wi-Fi service for the town centre based on open source technologies, that might well be true. But what can the rest of us learn from what has happened in Newstead? Here’s some of the key lessons I took away from his very stimulating presentation.

People can be really clueless about security. Newstead has long had an Internet cafe in the main community centre, but in its original Windows XP incarnation it was almost ludicrously insecure. Not only did all users have full admin rights, many stored documents permanently on the hard drives. “People had been doing their tax returns on their computers,” Hall said. “There were CVs and letters of demand on there.” That group of PCs has now been replaced with a standard platform running Ubuntu 10.04, with limited rights for users to ensure security and documents wiped nightly to ensure privacy.

Setting up basic community Wi-Fi is possible and not too pricey. The town Wi-Fi project, to ensure equal access for residents who otherwise might not get online at all as well as encourage tourists to stop, was constructed relatively cheaply; donations from the local council and free backhaul courtesy of Internode helped. However, that didn’t factor in the cost of volunteer help. As Hall observed good-humouredly: “Most of it has been built with donated time, primarily donated by me.”

You do need rules. For public and free Wi-Fi services, limits need to apply. The service has a connection limit of 30 minutes or 100MB, whichever comes first. There are also content rules: “We ban access to adult sites and stuff that’s not family-friendly, because it’s publiplaces and we’re giving it away for free,” Hall said.

Being in a small community has its advantages. As Hall was very ready to acknowledge, in some ways rolling out those options was easier in a small population than in a large one. “With less people around, it’s a lot easier to get things done because there’s less people to oppose things.” The flipside is that it’s harder to construct and maintain: “The problem is there’s less people to share the workload. It takes a bit of effort to educate people. It’s one thing to build everything but it needs to get supported.”

Wi-Fi And NBN Lessons From An Open Source Town

Good communications options are rare. Newstead provides an interesting example of both why the NBN is needed and why it won’t work for everyone. Newstead didn’t get ADSL1 until March 2005, and didn’t see ADSL2 until October 2011. Even that didn’t mean better speeds; when Hall got ADSL2 at his own house, his effective speeds actually halved.

The main reason? Ageing copper wiring using pair gain technologies, and an unwillingness on the part of Telstra to do anything to fix that. Those are the kinds of problems which appear to need a more radical solution — like taking wholesaling out of Telstra’s hands and replacing the ageing copper network to fix– to fix. As Hall said: “NBN fibre is awesome. I would really like it/”

Unfortunately for Newstead, when the NBN rolls out it will be one of the areas that gets a wireless service rather than a fibre option, something Hall is convinced will mean service degradation. “I consider WiMax to be the new dialup for country areas. Just about anyone can get a phone, but not broadband, and this is going to continue under the NBN.”

It does seem odd that an area two hours outside of Melbourne isn’t in line for fibre, though it’s worth noting again that its distance from Melbourne and location in Australia’s most densely-populated state hasn’t got it any good broadband options of any stripe to date. (Apparently the only halfway reasonable 3G option in the town is Telstra Next G; Vodafone coverage is non-existent and Optus’ tower focuses on the nearby highway.) It doesn’t sound as if Newstead residents would have a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude to additional coverage options, but right now no-one seems to be holding out much hope, and the chances of extra fibre spend in the current political climate are low.


  • its amazing what this guy is doing. Wish this could be adopted everywhere.
    but blaming telstra for not upgrading the copper wire for a town of 400 is a bit unfair. are the towns people willing to foot the bill? or should companies be forced to provide the latest and greatest, at substantial expense, to people who choose to live away from the populous?

    • They should not have to pay any more to have infrascture like you and I in our big cities. Like it or not we are a community and we need to look after the whole community. This whole neo-lib screwed up notion of user pays is bullshit. Its why our power grid is failing, why our network infrustructre is failing, our transport system…. do I need to go on and on.

      • Yes, they should. I am sick of hearing this ‘just because we live in the country doesn’t mean we should have to pay more / be inconvenienced’ Bulls—t.

        I choose to live in the city because of the conveniences it affords. Stuff costs more, there is traffic, I can’t have acreage etc. So why the hell should country people be able to live where they like with the benefits that come with it, and NOT have to suffer the disadvantages?

        The argument about putting food on our table is specious reasoning. How is that any more ‘noble’ than being a teacher, for example, living in the city.

        You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Deal with it.

        • Providing service equality in regional areas will attract more people out of the big cities, placing less strain on resources and having a direct impact on the reasons for ‘stuff costing more’.

          Remember that you are affected every day by many things that don’t directly relate to you. Don’t just think about yourself.

    • ” to people who choose to live away from the populous?”

      These are the people, not just Newstead, who put the food in the grocery stores… they feed you. And even then, it wouldn’t matter.. they are Australian citizens.

      “but blaming telstra for not upgrading the copper wire for a town of 400 is a bit unfair. are the towns people willing to foot the bill?”

      Who owns the lines? The people? The council? The state government?…. No.. Telstra does. it is their job to maintain and upgrade their equipment to bring inline with current standards.

      If individuals wanted cable, fine.. they can pay.. if they wanted more than the “standard”.. fine.. they can pay.. but the guy is saying that Telstra, the owners of the infrastructure, aren’t willing to do even the basics.

      They are certainly not asking for the “latest and greatest”..

      • “These are the people, not just Newstead, who put the food in the grocery stores… they feed you”

        Sure they do, and they do it for free do they? So get off the high horse. The day farmers stop driving around in $100K Range Rovers is the day they get pity from me.

        It’s the same as everyone, complain about the traffic? Move to the country. Complain about the broadband, move to the city. Just stop complaining.

        The problem is that WE ALL PAY for the minority, all the time. They are no worse off then me and I live less than an hour from Sydney.

        • Dont know what country towns you visit mate but there aren’t too many farmers that drive $100k Rovers. Those sort are usually called cocky’s and typically are lawyers etc from the city that pay poor wages to a real farmer to run the property. Of course, like you, the lawyer usually knows more about farming than the farmer.

          Complain? City people would have to be the biggest complainers going! Just watch the so called news, its stories about what Sydney siders want to complain about. The traffic, poor roads, poor public transport, planes are too loud etc. Guess what? When you get things like the cross city tunnel do you think only people from Sydney paid for that? You all complain about the congestion at Kempsey during holidays and want the rest of the state, and country, to help fund a nice little dual lane all the way to your prefered holiday destination.

  • Great write up. I grew up about 7 mins away in Guidlford. Still can’t even get mobile receiption there unless standing on a ladder or running up a hill.

  • I’m glad to see my presentation has sparked a good discussion.

    During my presentation I made the point that for many decades delivery of a fixed line phone service has been considered a basic service, just like electricity and roads. The state of broadband services in many country areas – even those within 150kms of a major city are like potholed roads. This is primarily due to Telstra failing to maintain and update their infrastructure.

    The people of Newstead already pay Telstra to maintain the copper, through their monthly bills. I offered Telstra 3 times the normal connection fee to give me a new line capable of ADSL1 when I lived less than 2kms from the exchange and they refused – I was stuck with pair gain. In the end I spent almost $1000 to get a reliable 3G connection.

    The suggestion that we all move to the city isn’t viable. Other have made the point that we need small towns to support rural industries. Cities like Melbourne are straining with the current levels of growth. Both state and federal governments have policies to encourage people to make a tree change to relive the pressure.

    I know quite a few of the local farmers, and none of them drive a Range Rover or a car worth $100K. Other people in around town I know include a Eureka Science award winner, one of Australia’s leading seismologists and people trying to run businesses which rely on reliable Internet connections.

  • “So why the hell should country people be able to live where they like with the benefits that come with it, and NOT have to suffer the disadvantages?”

    Not everyone who lives in the country is there because they actually WANT to be there. Ditto for the city. I have to live in a city because I work at a university but I would much prefer to live out in the countryside. I don’t really have much of a choice, and I won’t until more people start moving to the country and we can finally have more universities in rural areas (not to mention take the strain off the already over-crowded cities). The city vs. country debate is rather tiresome – all Australians should have access to the same conveniences regardless of where they are located in Australia.

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