The NBN Has An Inequality Problem

The NBN Has An Inequality Problem

The National Broadband Network (NBN) is widely considered to be failing Australians, but it isn’t failing them equally. The project was meant to provide greater equity of digital access. So far, it’s not looking good.

Our research, undertaken at the Centre for Research Excellence in the Social Determinants of Health Equity, seeks to address health inequities by looking at the geographical distribution of infrastructure, including digital technology.

Examining the rollout of NBN technologies as of December 2016, our preliminary analyses suggest areas of greatest socio-economic disadvantage overlap with regions typically receiving NBN infrastructure of poorer quality.

Comparing NBN technology with inequality

To determine socio-economic disadvantage, we used the Australian Bureau of Statistics’s (ABS) socio-economic indexes for area (SEIFA) and its index of relative socio-economic advantage and disadvantage (IRSD) from 2011.

Across Australia, we found only 29% of areas with a SEIFA decile of one (the lowest-scoring 10% of areas) had fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) – considered the best broadband technology solution available – or fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) connections. So far, around 71% of the NBN technology available in these areas involves inferior options, including hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC), fixed wireless or satellite technologies.

On the other hand, 93% of areas with a SEIFA decile of 10 (the highest-scoring 10% of areas) had FTTP or FTTN.

This result tells a similar story to an early analysis by Sydney University’s Tooran Alizadeh of 60 NBN release sites that were announced in 2011. She found some of the most disadvantaged areas of Australia were not gaining equal access to the new infrastructure.

If we look only at major cities in Australia – where the level of fibre technology is higher overall – areas with the greatest disadvantage, while exceeding similarly disadvantaged areas nationally, still received significantly less FTTP and FTTN: 65% of areas with a SEIFA decile of one had FTTP and FTTN, compared with 94% of areas with a SEIFA decile of 10.

Of course Australia is a large, sparsely populated country, which makes the business case for rolling out fibre difficult in some regions. Nevertheless, inequitable access to NBN technology appears even when controlling for the remoteness of the location.

If we look at outer regional Australia where fibre is less prevalent, the pattern looks worse. Only 12% of the most disadvantaged areas with a SEIFA decile of one received FTTP and FTTN, compared with 88% of the most advantaged outer regional areas with a SEIFA decile of nine.

Receiving FTTP or even FTTN may still be better than receiving HFC, fixed wireless or satellite technologies. While HFC may be able to match maximum speeds of FTTN, this is unlikely to happen during peak times when the increased number of users sharing the same data capacity will slow service considerably. And, similar to FTTN, these technologies provide fewer opportunities to upgrade capacity to meet future demand.

However, given only a limited data set was made publicly available in December 2016 by the NBN company, it is difficult to determine exactly which services are currently installed where. For example, the data set we used does not differentiate between FTTP and the lesser FTTN connection.

It also aggregates some NBN technology into an “other” category, making it impossible to distinguish between HFC and satellite service.

Image[Image: Various/The Conversation]

The NBN company offers a “check your address” search for its most up-to-date rollout information including technology type, but was unable to share this information with us in a single, usable data set.

A NBN spokesperson said the network was being rolled out across Australia regardless of any socio-economic mapping.

“Determining the sequence is a complex process of weighing up factors including the location of construction resources, current service levels, existing broadband infrastructure, growth forecasts and proximity to nbn infrastructure such as the transit network,” she said in an email. “Only 8 per cent of premises in Australia are not in the fixed-line footprint.”

Internet access and social inequity

A faster internet connection is increasingly central to people’s social connections, education opportunities, employment prospects and ability to access services.

This was raised in a 2011 report by the parliamentary Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications. It emphasised the potential role of the NBN in enhancing greater equity in digital access to services in regional and rural areas.

The Committee heard that, due to the ‘digital divide’, many of the Australians who could benefit the most from broadband currently have the lowest levels of online participation … The extent of accompanying measures implemented by governments will determine whether the NBN narrows or widens this digital divide.

Previous research has also found that people from lower socioeconomic groups are already restricted in their use of digital information and communication technologies. This can limit their access to a range of social determinants of health.

When populations already facing disadvantage receive poorer quality digital infrastructure, those with the greatest need will continue to slip farther behind.

Equity must be at the forefront of the NBN company’s considerations as it continues to roll out across Australia. Further entrenching social inequities through digital infrastructure is not the NBN anyone dreamed of.

The Conversation

Ashley Schram, Research Fellow, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University; Fran Baum, Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor, Foundation Director, Southgate Institute for Health, Society & Equity, Flinders University; Matt Fisher, Research Fellow in social determinants of health, Flinders University; Patrick Harris, Senior Research Fellow, University of Sydney; Sharon Friel, Director, School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) and Professor of Health Equity, ANU, Australian National University, and Toby Freeman, Senior Research Fellow in Health Equity, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


  • I can’t believe how badly Australia has made something that promised so much, actually deliver so little. From all accounts I won’t be much better off on HFC that I am now on ADSL2+. I just won’t have a choice…

  • It’s become a politicised mess.

    If the information is accurate, when NBN becomes active in my area under FTTN based on my distance from the node I can expect 8Mb/s (not considering congestion impacts). I can currently achieve sustained 20+Mb/s under Vodafone 4G and can reach the Modem limits of 42Mb/s.

    Ok, so I won’t be limited to 50GB a month anymore but it’ll take 4+ times longer under NBN to do anything. Still not sure if that can really be considered a success.

    • For me though, if I can get 8Mb/s, that will still represent an increase of 250-300% of my current speeds, so it will be a win for me (Of course, FTTC would have been better – There’s no point arguing about FTTP now, since its pretty much off the cards, as much as I hate to admit it)

      I still need to wait until 2019 though

  • This is the NBN Malcolm Turnbull delivered as the Minister for “Elite” Communications. He sabotaged the Labor NBN and ensured that if money was spent on it, only a better class of people would receive the benefits.

    How do you tackle this sort of ideological corruption? I think AI is the only hope of removing these charlatans from the decision-making process.

  • this article lists fttn and hfc both low for capacity to upgrade. HFC is far superior in upgrade options. docsis 3.0 is running with customers on iinets HFC network in the couple hundred megabit download speed, which means NBN is also capable with tweaking, not even new hardware. docsis 3.1 is a reality which will increase speeds much higher. That’s far easier to upgrade than FTTN. this article is written with a few falsehoods in it deliberately I think.

    • Thanks Dan,

      As one of the authors (Toby Freeman), can I say emphatically there are no deliberate falsehoods in the article. there were some limitations in the data we could get hold of to use.

      In regards to upgrading HFC, we weren’t meaning Docsis, we meant when it comes time to upgrade to FTTP. I am far from a tech expert but my understanding is even though Docsis brings improvements, HFC still has a ceiling, making it “good for now”, whereas fibre has much more upgrade potential.

      • HFC will outperform FTTN in pretty much every scenario unless the nodes are seriously underprovisioned. I am concerned regarding this sentence:

        “While HFC may be able to match maximum speeds of FTTN, this is unlikely to happen during peak times when the increased number of users sharing the same data capacity will slow service considerably. ”

        HFC and FTTN operate on similar principals – Running fibre to a ‘node’ and then using coaxial (HFC) or copper (FTTN) for the last mile. Congestion can occur at the node for both technologies but depends on how many fibre cores they pull, and from what it sounds like, they’re installing 2x 1 Gbit/sec SFP modules allowing for 2 Gbit/sec backhaul, upgradable to 2x 10 Gbit/sec SFP+ in FTTN cabinets. I’d expect to see similar deployments for the HFC node.

        Both are just as bad as each other when it comes to upgrading to FTTP in the future – FTTN is not better or worse than HFC in this regard. NBNco are using GPON for their FTTP rollout, which involves splitting a single fibre with 2.4 gbit/sec capacity between 32 houses (So you could see similar congestion issues in the future if they don’t upgrade to 10GPON). In both instances, you’d need to rip out all the existing infrastructure and basically start from scratch. The only technology with an ‘easy’ upgrade path to FTTP is FTTC fed by GPON.

        However, I’d be EXTREMELY surprised if we saw congestion at the node or splitter – Congestion is much more likely to occur at the POI, given NBNco’s ridiculous AVC and CVC pricing. AVC and CVC will do far more to damage to the speeds end users experience than whatever last mile topology they’re on.

      • You appear to admit falsehood straight off the bat unless the article has an error in it…
        How the hell can you argue that FttN connections are superior to HFC?
        Not only that, but then pool FttN into the “good” bucket along with FttP as though they were even remotely comparable!

        According to the article, you lump HFC connections into the “bad” connection bucket
        these areas involves inferior options, including hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC), fixed wireless or satellite technologies.
        and FttN into the “desirable” connection bucket!
        ..we found only 29% of areas with a SEIFA decile of one (the lowest-scoring 10% of areas) had fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) – considered the best broadband technology solution available – or fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) connections.

        Yet HFC connections at least have a strong (guaranteed?) chance of hitting the retail speed tiers of 100/40 and 50/20 where most or many (respectively) FttN connections can’t and never will be capable of hitting those speeds!

        FttN and HFC are both as upradeable to full Fibre as each other… Neither are “upgradeable” without requiring a full overbuild from the nearest Fibre Distribution Point.
        HFC at least has potential upgrade options in a change of technology of the endpoints.
        FttN has no upgrade future whatsoever, in fact, if anything FttN connections will degrade over time as the copper continues to degrade at the corrosion inducing gel-filled joints and a points of cracked insulation which allows water ingress.

        So in summary, HFC wins the battle of speeds both today and into the future, yet you rate FttN as a superior technology today and into the future?
        It’s either a deliberate falsehood to skew the numbers, or you guys have NFI! Either way, it makes your findings unreliable at best.

        HFC was predominantly laid in higher socio-economic areas anyway, so it might not change the result of the findings if you were to swap the bucket assignments, but then the HFC wasn’t actually rolled out by NBN, so it’s hardly fair to count it as part of NBN’s inequality?
        Pare the analysis back to who got FttP (the gold standard) compared to who got everything else (the poor sods) and then let’s see how unequal it is?

  • so what this article is trying to tell me is the lower socio economic suburb I reside in, the worse the NBN delivery ? Well if that’s the case, I call shenanigans, as across the valley from me in North Gosford NSW, is housing commission with FTTP, yet on the north side of the valley and beyond (Nararra/Wyoming), which is of higher socio economic status, is archaic FTTN….explain that to me, will you ?

    • See, what you are experiencing is called an anecdotal evidence. The point of the study was to compare information across many different suburbs to show the overall values, rather than focusing on specific examples. What they seem to have found is evidence that the higher socioeconomic suburbs tend to have access to fttp not that EVERY high socioeconomic suburb does.

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!