Labor's Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland had four topics of conversation in mind for the public meeting held in Bellingen today, but the ABC, Australia Post and media policy got short shrift, because the hour-long session was dominated by the first topic - the National Broadband Network.
A couple of people (at least one of whom was from Coffs Harbour) said their NBN was marvellous, but they were followed by plenty of others who were decidedly unimpressed with what they were receiving.
Anton Juodvalkis said he was one of the residents in the Bellingen township pushed onto fixed wireless. He said the quality of the service was highly variable and occasionally dipped to about a third of what his family had been getting on ADSL.
Living only 6km from Bellingen towards the Pacific Highway, Adele Hemphill wanted to know why she had ended up on Sky Muster, with its high prices and slow speeds, instead of fixed wireless.
"I can't understand why we're on it at all. We're not on the dark side of the moon or in the Outback," she said.
Asked what Labor's position will be regarding urban premises placed on fixed wireless, Ms Rowland said the situation would certainly require examination after the next election, but that by that time, most of the NBN would already either be rolled out or in the design and construction phase.
"That's not to say that something can't be done," she said. "It's not going to be an overnight answer, but people do want to know that there's a pathway. Maybe there is some local commitment that can be given to particular areas where you've got these anomalies."
She said that as she wasn't in government, she couldn't demand information from NBN Co to do costings, "but what I can tell you is that I fully appreciate why this is a concern. It's an equity issue."
At that point, Jason Errey made a short speech before walking out, visibly upset.
"I'm sorry, but we need solutions. There's 170,000 people in regional areas who have been discriminated against and pushed off and have no solution. I can't listen to another politician coming here and saying I have sympathy."
Jason, who lives in the Sunset Ridge fixed wireless area and has been a tireless campaigner on the issue of Bellingen's digital divide, recently won a major innovation award for his high tech business, OEMG Global.
“There’s only so much that I can say while I’m in Opposition,” Ms Rowlands said. “I’m not going to come here and promise things that can’t be delivered.”
Another person who left early after voicing anger and frustration about how the NBN was hobbling her business was Amelia Franklin, who lives on Church St within a few blocks of Hyde St, but missed out on being within the Fibre-to-the-Curb footprint by three houses.
“Instead of there being a cutting edge block-chain technology project running out of Bellingen where I live, we do all our work in Brisbane,” Amelia said.
“Which means we’re now not employing people within the Bellingen region who do have the skills that we require, we’re employing people in Brisbane. For a project that could potentially create 20 to 50 or more jobs in this area and pull in money from the whole global coffee supply chain.”
Towards the end of the session, Ms Rowland said that moving away from the Fibre to the Premises model for the NBN “would go down as one of the worst decisions in Australian policy history” but reiterated her earlier point that undoing it would not be a simple matter of changing policy, given the semi-complete state of the rollout.