Regions of the country are overwhelmed by the influx of tourists and sea changers demand mobile data
Like many regional and coastal beauty spots around Australia, Bright has a very good problem.
- Mobile networks in popular rural areas are under pressure from a population boom and tourism
- Data usage is increasing due to working from home and an increasing number of devices
- Shopkeepers in Bright, Victoria, are building their own wifi network to cope
He was one of the beneficiaries of Tree Changers and Sea Changers fleeing major cities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, local cell towers have not been able to keep up with the explosive growth in Internet data demand.
“So literally we can go from 2,000 or 3,000 people overnight to 20,000 to 30,000 people [as visitors flood in]”Doug Badrock told Clean Bowled, one of his hangouts in the small town in Victoria’s High Country.
“It (the city) is swelling. The number of people, the number of cars in the city is unbelievable – the traffic jams, all kinds of problems. Good problems.”
But what is happening in parallel is the death of the internet, which relies on cell phone towers built to cope with the small local population.
Beyond the danger created during natural disasters like bushfires, there is another pressing concern: people’s ability to buy food and drink using eftpos on weekends.
“Literally, the internet is slowing down… [and then] completely stop, give up,” Mr. Badrock said.
“When it’s calm, it’s 100%.
Contactless payments aren’t the only problem.
Since the start of the COVID pandemic, more and more hotel businesses have switched to online ordering. People use their phones to order food and drinks straight from the kitchen, so when the internet goes down, everything goes down the drain.
Not prepared for popularity
For years, federal governments have pushed the idea of “decentralization” — increasing the population of regional areas to lighten the load of expanding cities.
But apart from the forced relocation of some ministries, it didn’t really work.
“For a long time when we thought of regional development, we talked about the old adage, ‘Build it and they will come,'” said Helen Haines, Independent MP for Victorian North East Indi.
“Well, we didn’t build it and they came.”
Ms Haines is frustrated that solving connectivity in rural areas – a key issue that propelled her predecessor Cathy McGowan to the once-safe national headquarters in 2013 – is left to market players more interested in populated cities and a grant patchwork “black dot” to fill in the gaps.
“We were already struggling with telecommunications when it comes to basic bushfire safety,” she said.
“We didn’t have enough mobile signal.
“During COVID, when our kids were learning from home, they were at a huge disadvantage because they didn’t have enough data, the speed wasn’t there, and people working from home on top of that are now an additional population.
“Telecommunications is a huge problem…it really is a basic human right. And we haven’t put the resources into it in Australia in a serious way.
“But we’re getting money trickle down. It’s the biggest impediment to regional business growth and productivity.”
A bright plan
The Bright Brewery is one of the town’s biggest employers, set by the river among the deciduous trees the area is famous for.
Bright’s population is just over 2,500. But at the height of summer, the town’s population increases more than 10-fold, and 2,500 is the number of meals the brewery can produce each day.
Welcoming so many visitors is a profitable joy, but overloaded cell towers quickly put a smile on the face of business owners.
“It’s almost become a joke around town when the town is really busy,” said Laura Gray of Bright Brewery.
“The internet is slowing down to the point where it’s unusable for a lot of people. It’s incredibly frustrating – a huge problem – especially during these very busy times.”
To keep eftpos machines working and visitors uploading happy Instagram snaps, marketers are building their own do-it-yourself wireless network that anyone can use.
Currently, cellphone signal goes to nearby towers. But when the population increases, congestion means it stops working.
The plan is to build a large Wi-Fi network connected to the national broadband network to ease the pressure on the towers.
“The cell phone tower just can’t cope with that many phones,” said Bruce Hore, secretary of the Bright Chamber of Commerce.
“I think there is a market failure right now.
“We realized that we can’t rely on telecom providers to provide the networks we need.”
You can see Bright’s problem repeating itself in popular coastal and vacation areas across the country.
“The community-led solution might turn out to be a solution.”
Lack of standards
Mr Hore is angry with competing providers who serve the valley using different systems of pylons and connections.
The larger problem is that no government has decreed what constitutes an adequate level of telecommunications service, so it is difficult to hold the companies to account.
“There are no standards for coverage, capacity, resilience and bushfire or flooding,” Mr Hore said.
“So without these standards, there’s no way to really measure what the true impact of telecommunications is in an area.”
For Mr Badrock, it’s more basic. With three stores in Victoria’s High Country and a staff of 50, it serves its local community from morning to night. But without the Internet powering contactless payment terminals, it cannot.
“As soon as it breaks down, we’re like, ‘Yeah, sorry, you have to use cash.’ Nobody has any money, so we’re literally losing customers right away.