Telecommunications

Telecommunications “hell”: The businesses left in the lurch by Australia’s NBN fiasco

Matthew Elmas /

Allen Reece has just spent three months in what he describes as telecommunications “hell” after switching to the National Broadband Network (NBN).

As the owner of a small realty business in Newcastle, Reece was told about faster speeds and a more secure connection before he switched to the NBN in August.

What he got instead are broken phone lines, intermittent internet and an overwhelming feeling that nobody cares.

“It’s been a disaster,” Reece tells SmartCompany.

“Our key advertised phone line is still not hunting our other lines … every hour our internet just drops out, I can make coffee in the time it takes to upload anything.”

Ordinarily, there are six phone lines running out of Reece Realty, with one single advertised number directing business queries to various staff members.

But since connecting to the NBN, Reece reports being forced down to two lines, such that if more than two people are calling in or out of his business at once, others are unable to get through.

“If a landlord can’t regularly contact us we’ll lose the property … it’s my livelihood, my staff’s livelihood,” he says.

Reece, who employs 15 people, says he can’t be sure how much potential business he’s lost so far but estimates a single missed opportunity could cost him $10,000.

Reece is one of 20,433 small businesses that have made complaints to the telecommunications ombudsman in the 2017-18 financial year, according to new figures released today.

The number of small businesses reporting problems increased 8.7% in the last year, hitting a five-year high despite a downward trend in the last six months.

Telecommunications ombudsman Judi Jones concedes there’s work to be done.

“Small businesses are much more reliant on being connected via phone or internet than they used to be,” she tells SmartCompany.

“We’re really conscious that the impact on small businesses can be more significant when transferring [to the NBN].”

More than 450,000 businesses are already connected to the NBN, with an average of 20,000 new businesses added to the network each month.

But SmartCompany has spoken to small business owners who report having significant issues connecting to the NBN, or with the service thereafter.

Steve Stephens, owner of Bathurst-based consultancy The Persuader, said local businesses in his area were waiting for years for upgraded internet infrastructure, only to be disappointed with the outcome.

“There’s faster technology out there, we’ve been provided with a system that’s just a bit better than ADSL 2,” he tells SmartCompany.

“I have a stack of complaints saying it slows down around 3pm.”

Several others SmartCompany spoke to, who asked not to be named, said they were told by ISP sales representatives to avoid switching to the NBN in their area until the “teething issues” had been sorted out.

Small business left behind?

While tech troubles have plagued his business, Reece says his frustrations lie with an inability to resolve the problem, despite having pursued the matter with his service provider Telstra and NBN Co.

“Telstra blames NBN, NBN blames Telstra … we need someone to take responsibility, there’s no accountability at all,” Reece says.

Reece says he was aware of issues with his phone line before switching to the NBN, and prior to changing over informed Telstra of the potential problem.

However, he says that NBN Co. arrived anyway and switched over his businesses, despite being told of the potential issue by his office manager on the day.

“It happened, then we lost the main phone line that we advertise everywhere,” Reece explains.

When asked whether it consults with business owners about their individual circumstances before switching them over, an NBN Co. spokesperson said businesses experiencing issues with NBN services should speak with their service provider.

“NBN Co. is the wholesaler, as such our relationship is with the retailer, who in turn have the direct relationship with the customer,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson confirmed Telstra raised issues with Reece’s connection on August 10.

“NBN Co. offered for a technician to visit and investigate, however, this was not confirmed by the retailer and the offer lapsed,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said an NBN technician visited Reece’s property on August 16 but found no fault with the NBN network itself, instead “escalating” the issue with Telstra.

Telstra said it was working with Reece Realty to resolve the issue.

“This isn’t the experience we want for our customers,” a spokesperson said.

“The customer has had a working NBN service since September 12, and earlier this month advised they were having issues with their phone line.

“After testing, we believe the issue is due to the customer’s private equipment at their business.”

Small business and family enterprise ombudsman Kate Carnell says she’s fielded numerous complaints from people like Reece who feel they’ve got nowhere to turn.

“We hear, ‘it’s somebody else’s fault’ all the time,” she tells SmartCompany.

“The difficulty for a business connection is that they’re often more complex than a home connection … what has tended to happen is that the people who connect businesses haven’t understood that.

“They [the ISPs] have dropped the ball.”

Jones, who has the power to award compensation to businesses, says she’s done so in multiple cases recently, advising businesses to reach out with any concerns.

“We take the view that if an ISP contracts to provide a service to the consumer then they’re responsible for ensuring the service is delivered,” she says.

Of the 20,433 small businesses that made complaints to the telecommunications ombudsman in 2017-18, 35.9% reached out due to no or delayed action on their issues.

About a quarter (25.2%) complained about service and equipment fees, while 15.5% were upset with delays in establishing their service.

One retailer, three internet connections

Not all complaints originate from the NBN, however, and other business owners are going to extraordinary lengths to keep the internet going.

Derek Sheen, founder of e-commerce business Yellow Octopus says he pays for three separate internet connections from three different service providers to keep his business running.

“As we run an e-commerce store, having a slow internet connection isn’t really going to work. Multiple internet connections provide us with a backup,” he tells SmartCompany.

“We also use VoIP and have found that if someone downloads a large file whilst another is speaking on the phone, the phone cut in and out making it difficult to hear the other person.

“This is embarrassing when dealing with customers and is another reason why we have multiple broadband connections.”

The “too-hard basket”

Mitch Wood, the owner of bike retailer LuxBMX, based three kilometres west of Brisbane’s CBD, describes his internet as a “nightmare”.

He’s not on the NBN, but he’s not on a copper wire service either. Based in Brisbane’s West End, his business is on a separate fibre network Telstra stopped building in 2013.

Telstra built a limited fibre to the premises network after its telephone exchange in the area shut down to make way for a children’s hospital.

But a bit more than five years after Telstra stopped building, Wood says he can only get a local ISP to provide his business internet.

“We’re in the too-hard basket,” Wood tells SmartCompany.

Wood reports slow speeds, an intermittent connection and difficulty in finding a solution, outside of offers for new services at $800 per month.

“It’s a pain point for everyone, it makes day to day processes that should be really quick difficult,” Wood says.

“It’s pretty insane … we’re three kilometres from the CBD.”

What has your experience with the NBN or internet infrastructure in Australia been like? Let us know [email protected]

NOW READ: NBN faces irrelevance in cities as competitors build faster, cheaper alternatives

NOW READ: The ACCC wants to fine NBN Co for missing broadband installation appointments

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Matthew Elmas

Matthew is the news editor at SmartCompany.

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