Wednesday, July 13, 2011

NBN widening digital divide in bush

Nikki Tugwell, of ABC News Online's Investigative Unit reports that the NBN will widen the disparity between city and country Internet users ("NBN disparity threatens to widen the gap", July 12, 2011 14:15:00). Those in remote areas, beyond the reach of fiber optic cable and terrestrial wireless, will receive satellite broadband. This will be limited to i Mbps upload speed.

Associate Professor Ellie Rennie, Swinburne University's Institute for Social Research, will be reporting on the "Home Internet Usage for Remote Indigenous Communities", 20 July. She has indicated one megabit per second will not be sufficient for real-time video streaming, thus limiting its use for electronic health, education and training.

Professor Rennie is reported to have claimed that video conferencing won't be possible via the NBN, making e-health and off-site lectures impossible. This is an exaggeration, as video conferencing is possible at speeds slower than 1 Mbps, it is not needed symmetrically for many applications and many e-health and e-learning applications do not need video conferencing.

Also it will be the latency of the satellite link which will cause difficulties with many applications, not the bandwidth of the link. It is not that enough data can't be sent through the link, but there is too long a delay in transmitting the data.

This is not to say that the disparity of urban and remote NBN speeds will not cause problems, but that there are ways to address this. The first and most obvious solution is to design applications for different speeds: this will allow the service to be provided, on low and high speed links. Another way is to provide alternatives to real time video. An example is where high resolution videos can be prerecorded, with the real time interactive component done at lower resolution (I have successfully used video for education at 28.8 kbps).

One way to lessen the delay problems is with use of non-verbal/visual protocols. At a face to face event, a participant would indicate they wist to talk by putting up their hand or simply starting to speak. This may be difficult on-line and so systems have a button to click for the participant to raise their virtual hand to signal to the moderator. As well as getting around problems with the video/audio quality, this can allow for a very fast and efficient way to get feedback, not possible with traditional communications.

While remote users will still get lower speed NBN service, they will not necessarily receive inferior health and educational services as a result. By getting more direct access, they will have a better service in many ways, than those from traditional face to face services in the city.

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