Australian Pirating Won’t Stop Until Internet Speeds Get Better

Words by: Darcie Boelen

 Internet speeds in Australia (or lack thereof) are becoming a major issue. It was already a problem ten years ago, and it’s becoming exponentially worse.

In 2007, the Labor government under Kevin Rudd promised to improve Australian internet accessibility across the board. In 2009, the federal government made a deal with the private sector to invest up to $43 billion in the national broadband network, bringing super-fast internet speeds to all Australians, running to 90% of homes and businesses. Remaining homes would be reached with wireless and satellite technologies.

Rudd said six years ago that the big Australian internet providers like Optus and Telstra couldn’t keep up, and that it was the Federal government’s responsibility to bring Australian internet speeds up to an international standard.

“Years of failed policy have left Australia as a broadband backwater,” said Rudd in April 2009, when announcing the roll out of the NBN. He also said it was the “single biggest infrastructure decision in Australia’s history” with comparisons being made at the time to the Sydney Harbor Bridge and Snowy Hydro. Admittedly, $43 billion is a lot of money, but the government was able to justify the spend, saying it was necessary and without it Australia would only fall further behind.

And fallen behind we have.

In 2013, we were the 40th slowest country for internet speeds, but in the latest State of the Internet report, Australia has been ranked 44th. New Zealand have overtaken us in the past few years, jumping a few spots up to 42nd. For shame, Australia. I can at least ignore the rugby score when we get our behinds handed to us by the All Blacks, but I refuse to play second fiddle to Kiwi ADSL.

All jokes aside, it’s actually a serious and seriously debilitating problem. Australia is way behind on broadband networks, but it’s not an impossible task. High speed internet is provided across the country to schools and universities via AARNet’s national network, which is a base model for the NBN.

But since the Abbott government took power, the NBN has been reformed and reshaped and refitted so many times I forget what it is they’re actually trying to do with it now. In theory, the same main goal: get faster internet. But the current Liberal government is refusing to spend as much money or put as much energy in, and that’s a big problem.

While Rudd was opting for an expensive solution to the problem, Abbott has opted for a cheap solution. Both options are slow, and I’d be alright with slow, I understand that these things take time, but going for the cheaper option means that we aren’t getting what we need.

Here’s the lowdown: when Rudd announced a national broadband network, he was planning on rolling out fibre-to-the-premesis style broadband. Basically, this means that there would be a direct line from the internet provider to your house via a series of fibre-optic communication methods, giving you fast internet. Really fast internet – the Usain Bolt of internet.

When the Coalition took power, they changed the NBN so it would provide fibre-to-the-node, also known as fibre-to-the-neighbourhood broadband, which also uses copper instead of fibre. This means that instead of getting your own nice fibre-optic cable to your own house, you have to share with your entire apartment block, or even your entire suburb.

This is less like Usain Bolt and more like that participation ribbon you got at the primary school sports carnival that says “you ran in a race”. Not even that, really. We’re coming 44th. It’s kind of like we didn’t show up to the race at all.

I appreciate that the Coalition was handballed the NBN when they came into power and I can understand that their agenda is quite different to that of the previous government, but I cannot for the life of me understand why they thought that replacing Usain Bolt with a fifth grader was ever going to go unnoticed.

It kind of did, for a while. We just ignored it, as Australians are wont to do. We’re remarkably good at putting up with terrible things in Australia – drought, flies, slow public transport, The Bachelor – and we’ve managed to do the same with internet. It’s slow, it’s a bit clunky, it lags. But we’ve put up with it.

Now, though, it’s reached tipping point. It’s not just us and the government any more. There are more and more third parties getting involved with the great internet debate now that pay TV is gaining traction in the Australian market.

The problem is as follows: Australians pirate things. Particularly television and movies, but a lot of other things too. We’ve done if for ages because we’re annoyed that we don’t get to see our favourite TV shows on time, and our internet is still fast enough to load spoilers.

In an attempt to encourage slightly more legal behaviour, a number of subscription television providers have made themselves known, such as Netflix and Stan and Presto. Which is great news, really. We’ve all been making grabby hands at Netflix since we heard about House of Cards, and now we’ve got it.

But now we have a slight problem. While subscription providers like Foxtel operate primarily via satellite, Netflix operates via the internet. And when your laptop can’t even get fifteen seconds into a Beyoncé music video on Youtube, what makes you think you’re going to make it through the first episode of Orange is the New Black?

It probably won’t be an issue for those of us who are lucky enough to live in an area which already has substantial and accessible internet – even if it is slow, we can buffer. We’re good like that. But for those who aren’t lucky enough to live on the grid, streaming just isn’t an option. And I’m not even talking about country towns, here – I’m talking about people who live in the outer suburbs of Perth who live in internet black holes, where internet isn’t available via ADSL because there simply aren’t any ports available to connect to their house. It’s as simple as it sounds. There’s a port, and you plug it in. If all the ports are taken, or they are defective, then tough luck – you’re not getting ADSL.

Wollongong resident Tanya Levin spoke about the issue in 2013, saying, “I live in a suburb that has multi-million dollar houses, but we’re playing musical chairs for ports […] I have to wait for someone to die or move before I can get broadband? I’m embarrassed on an international level for all of us.”

Similarly, ABC Reporter Norman Hermant reported this year that he moved house right into an internet black hole. “I thought I had moved to West Footscray, not West Africa,” he wrote, and while that sounds amusing, he is actually on point. This area in Melbourne has the same internet speed as Burkina Faso, ranked 195th in the world with only 1.5 megabits per second.

I thought naively that these problems would only affect people who weren’t me, but then I started my relationship with Wanneroo and everything became terrible.

In my mind, it works like this: when a Telstra representative first went north to Wanneroo to decide how much internet capacity was required and saw all the lovely strawberry farms and simple folk living simple lives, he made what could only have been a reasonable decision.

“How much internet does Wanneroo need, Bob?”

“Not much, boss.”

I assume this is the same man who travelled to Busselton and Esperance and Gingin, and said much the same thing each time.

Until 1985, Wanneroo was a country shire and mostly consisted of farms and crops. The population increased by 40,000 people between 2006 and 2010, the largest expansion of any other area in Perth. In addition, almost two-thirds of Wanneroo residents were born overseas, which means they probably know what a fast internet speed looks like.

Wanneroo runs on what is known as a Mega Exchange. Residents wait for up to a year for a port to connect their homes to the internet, and also suffer from extreme internet traffic congestion when too many people try to access the internet at the same time. And the satellite isn’t much better. Take it from me, I have to walk out the front lawn to get a Facebook notification on 4G mobile data.

Rural residents suffer much the same fate, and struggle to access high-speed internet. Or any internet, really. Over 700,000 houses nationwide don’t have access to broadband in any way, shape or form, and most that do have dwindling speeds often below 24 megabits per second.

And even if you can get your internet to work, if it’s too hot the damn thing will just overheat and melt, like it did in January this year when iiNet had to shut down systems in Perth for over six hours.

In December 2014, an underwater fibre-optic cable which connects Australia to the rest of the world also stopped working, not allowing internet traffic to pass between Perth and Singapore. This can happen during an earthquake or when some idiot with a boat drops an anchor on the line. This same cable stopped working entirely in 2005 and ground internet to a halt in Pakistan.

All that brings me back to my original point. You’re not going to be able to consistently watch the new episodes of Better Call Saul until you’ve fought off everybody else in your suburb for an operating port on a copper line which melts in the heat with West African poverty-stricken internet speeds and made sure fish haven’t been chewing on the Singapore-Perth connection cable.

Streaming television on the internet is not going to work with all these hurdles. Australians will keep on illegally downloading despite subscription TV being made available, because the damn internet doesn’t work fast enough or consistently enough for us to watch an entire episode of anything.

Until Australia has upgraded to a user-friendly, weather-resistant, operating broadband system – not the sub-part fifth grader submarine afflicted  base level system we currently have – we’re not going to be able to watch anything. Introducing subscription internet television will only work if the internet works, and if the internet doesn’t work, people won’t pay Netflix. And if people won’t pay Netflix, Netflix will leave. And if they leave we’re back in square one.

I’m not sure how much longer I’m prepared to wait for a broadband system that isn’t a complete embarrassment.