Micro businesses are a crucial part of the Australian economy, a force in their own right as well as a springboard to bigger things.
In 2016, the ABS Counts of Australian Businesses reported that 1.8 million of the nation’s total 2.1 million businesses (85 per cent) were either sole traders or employed fewer than five people.
Although the township of Bellingen won’t have the NBN till next year, nestled on its fringes and across the shire are many micro home-based businesses that already have access to the NBN in the form of fixed wireless or satellite.
And a vocal subsection of them are not at all happy with it – especially those on Sunset Ridge.
The photo above shows just a few of the 24 businesses who responded with alacrity to a call by local NBN activist Jason Errey to help illustrate this story by mimicking the classic shot of Steve Jobs standing outside the garage where Apple was born.
The businesses they represent are diverse. For instance, Jason (top right) runs OEMG Global, an award-winning ground modelling, oceanography and environmental management business. Arne Hansen (top left) runs Buildings Evolved, which creates customised building technology analytic and reporting systems. Gethin Coles (centre left) is a professional fine art, landscape and commercial photographer. Paula Whiteway (bottom right) is a prominent freelance designer in the Australian film industry.
Others not in the photograph include Colin Thompson, a children’s book author and illustrator who lives in Gleniffer. He’s published over 70 books that are sold internationally and also creates very large, detailed pictures for Ravensburger, the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle company.
He connects to the internet via an ADSL landline (slow) or the NBN satellite service, Sky Muster (faster but with a limited data allowance even on the most expensive plan).
“These illustrations are sometimes over 750 gigabytes,” Colin said. “I recently tried to upload a file of this size via my ADSL landline and was informed that it was going to take over eight days – arguably longer than Australia Post would have taken to deliver the image on a memory stick.
“I uploaded it via Sky Muster and even that took about three hours. It also cost me $100 of my $120 per month data allowance.”
Colin noted we are always hearing our cities are overcrowded and that people should be encouraged to move to less urbanised areas.
“But to get people to move to areas like Bellingen we need an infrastructure to support them and that includes high-speed internet,” he said. “Over 75 per cent of my income is generated overseas and helps to boost the Australian economy. A decent internet is vital to my work.”
Another respondent is an IT professional living in Brierfield. She has a tower 5km away but seems to be in a fixed wireless blackspot. So she is forced to use the Sky Muster satellite, which she describes as ‘grossly overpriced and not sufficient for my needs’.
“With satellite I have to do the majority of my work in off-peak times. I rise at 4am and work until 7am or my monthly download runs out within 10-20 days.
“I have data tracking applications on my devices to track download and uploads but each month my ISP will advise my data has been used up prior to end of the month.
“My children's usage is blocked to one hour morning and afternoons so the data lasts for us all - we don't use Netflix, iView, YouTube or any streaming service and it honestly is very stressful monitoring this each month so I can have a usable internet for working.”
A recent NSW Business Chamber survey found widespread unhappiness about costly delays and disruption caused by poor NBN service.
Sixty per cent of those connected on the Mid North Coast reported slow speeds and poor levels of customer service by both wholesale and retail telecommunication providers and 42 per cent said their NBN was unreliable.
“The Chamber’s NBN and telecommunications survey found that due to disruptions, investment in new equipment and lost business, on average connecting to the NBN was costing businesses up to $9000," Regional Manager Mid North Coast NSW Business Chamber Kellon Beard said.
Jason Errey has resisted switching from ADSL to fixed wireless NBN because he sees it as too risky.
"It's not a stable service. Seventy per cent of Sunset Ridge, which has been pushed onto fixed wireless, doesn’t have line of sight to the tower. And as well, that tower is congested. So it’s got really questionable service."
Line of sight is important because the signal is disrupted by structures, trees and land formations. Fixed wireless technology is capable of download speeds up to 100Mbps but it is a “shared” network, so is slowed down during times of peak use, similar to current phone networks.
Legislation currently before the Parliament would require wholesale broadband providers to offer peak broadband speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 5Mbps up to every premise in Australia, even those within the fixed wireless and satellite footprint.
Jason said at Sunset Ridge, download speeds can be as low as 5Mbps, and that NBN had upgraded the tower five times in the last 10 months but it still could not deliver stable service.
"If NBN chooses not to put us onto a wired connection, I don't see a future for businesses in the Sunset Ridge area,” he said. “People will either have to pay for a wired connection or move."
"For small businesses, that's just a kick in the guts. We employ people and we generate income for the shire, and to be kicked in the guts by the government is just ridiculous."