How SMEs are fighting the mess of Australia’s telecommunications networks in regional areas

Business owner using a tablet and internet outside

Australia’s telecommunications networks are “a mess” of moving parts that is frustrating businesses communities in regional areas by stifling their plans for expansion.

This week the ACCC called for submissions from the general public about a potential national roaming mobile service to allow mobile providers to give customers access to reception where their own networks can’t provide it. The commission also announced a broader market study into the communications sector to look at Australians’ priorities for mobile use, data and the National Broadband Network (NBN).

These are key issues for SMEs in rural and regional Australia, who continue to be plagued by disconnection, mobile reception black spots and dial-up-only internet. Several small business owners have told SmartCompany that while they have digital strategies that sit at the forefront of their industries, telecommunications infrastructure is stopping their plans for growth.

Modelling from 2015 into digital growth in small businesses by PriceWaterhouseCoopers Australia found there was $42.9 billion in untapped economic potential in the current market, with more than half of that potential in rural and regional areas.

“People don’t have a lot of confidence about the kind of services that will be available in their area,” Regional Australia Institute chief executive Jack Archer told SmartCompany.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of business owners being heard, it’s a matter of having a proper solution,” he says.

There are several parts to the equation that contribute to the uncertainty: slow rollout of the NBN, mobile black spots, areas with slow or no internet coverage beyond dial-up, and lack of choice of telecommunication providers that can provide solid service in regional areas. While business concerns include lack of choice in mobile plans and the costs associated with the internet, the number one priority is that everyone has solid access.

“It’s a mess,” says Archer.

“It’s a real constraint when people haven’t got the level of service they expect.”

“It’s bittersweet and it’s no doubt frustrating”

SMEs owners operating in regional locations say they are used to working with customers across long distances and that this puts them on the cutting edge of digital strategy – but lack of network coverage can get in the way of a business realising its potential.

“We cannot get ADSL and I rely on slow speed 3G out here,” says Linda Nadge, who runs stargazing operation Outback Astronomy from Broken Hill in New South Wales.

“Just up the road from us we can see the infrastructure for the NBN, but we can’t get on, because they’re just not ready for us yet.”

The majority of Outback Astronomy’s customer base is international tourists who sign up for Outback Astronomy shows before they arrive in Australia. Internet connection speeds are a key factor for business growth, but Nadge often travels with “pen and paper”, knowing full well she might lose coverage while on the go.

“We’ve had to come up with a really clever website, but we’d love to get onto the NBN and become a showcase for them. It’s bittersweet and it’s no doubt frustrating,” she told SmartCompany.

The nature of Australia’s communications infrastructure means that a number of organisations are responsible for solving different problems. Currently the ACCC is looking into a domestic roaming service, while the Productivity Commission is undertaking a 12-month inquiry into Australia’s telecommunications Universal Service Obligation, a framework that sets out minimum coverage standards. The Department of Communications is responsible for the Mobile Black Spot program to update mobile base stations, but this has come under fire after the National Audit Office criticised the project’s approach to expanding network coverage to new areas. Meanwhile, the federal government’s Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee handed down its report in 2015, including 12 recommendations for the efficient rollout of the NBN across Australia.

Jack Archer says the scattered nature of concerns means a number of regional businesses are stuck making do with lesser quality services.

“I’ve heard stories of farmers getting up at three in the morning to start work, otherwise the network gets too clogged,” he says.

But other regional operators say the negativity around telecommunications coverage is taking away from the innovative digital strategies that many are pioneering. Global digital manager of cookbook imprint 4 Ingredients, Michelle Evans, says running her business out of Queensland’s Caloundra has thrown up countless lessons about connecting with an audience.

“We’ve got crap internet – it’s better than it was, but we just keep looking for new opportunities to expand anyway,” Evans told SmartCompany.

The book publisher was forced to re-evaluate its strategy when REDGroup Retail, the owner of bookselling chains Borders and Angus & Robertson, went into administration in 2011, causing a number of 4 Ingredients’ distributors to disappear.

“We thought, then, how do we get ahead?” says Evans.

“We started to make it all about ease of purchase, we share as much as we can [on social media], and it’s the best time we’ve ever had.”

Given that so many regional SMEs are forced to travel, Evans also learned that there was one vital business investment for controlling stress – a good phone plan.

“I’ve found the biggest stress around businesses – in regional areas and in the city – is getting access to Wi-Fi,” she says.

“So I’d say go into the telcos and say, ‘This is where I live, this is where I work, this is my biggest stress and this is where I’m using my data,’ and get them to build the plan for you,” she says.

This process involves checking with phone providers that their service will guarantee coverage in the areas that businesses are planning to operate in, so checking coverage maps becomes important. For small businesses with annual turnover of $3 million or less, complaints about coverage can be referred to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.

“People are now actively seeking out products that have been produced in regional areas,” says Evans.

“The key to staying in control of your business is coverage. If your telco is strong, that’s the key.”

The ACCC is accepting submissions on its communications sector market study until October 14. Guidelines can be found on the ACCC website. 


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