There has been a lot of gnashing of teeth about the plight of rural and regional Australia recently, particularly after the people who live out there expressed their anger at the ballot boxes in Western Australia and Queensland. The Government is rightly concerned that the 'battlers' might still be mighty pissed off when they have to vote in the federal election later this year.

One of the Internet's most useful qualities is its ability to shrink distances and provide services remotely. Yet the more remote you are in Australia, the less likely you are to be able to connect. If you live in one of the major capital cities you can cheerfully browse the Web for services that are being provided by the office right next door. Saves you getting off your bum, but doesn't really make a huge difference in your life.

Driving 300km into your nearest rural town, only to find that the service you need has moved elsewhere, would certainly make you yearn for a better way of knowing what's available and when. The Internet could do it for you, if only you could get connected. And I don't mean via a 56Kbps modem. I doubt that many regular Internet users bother to hook up from home any more, since most businesses have a much faster link right to your office desk. A majority of Web sites now pay scant attention to the needs of modem users - it's assumed that you can connect faster than that.

I'm making an assumption that the services available over the Internet would actually be useful to rural users. Since I don't live there I can't be sure. Certainly the increase in the range and functionality of Internet banking services should be useful to remote users. I suspect that most users currently are city folk avoiding the queues at the diminishing branches. Out in the bush, the banks have just plain vanished. Better hope their Internet offerings are of some use to those customers.

So, there are really three barriers for remote Internet hopefuls. Not enough infrastructure out there to get connected, and even if you find some, no chance of it being high-speed. And then you have to find a way to pay for it. You can't rely on your nearest ISP being a local phone call away after you leave the city. And it's not common for small ISPs - the ones most likely to be servicing rural communities - to have a revenue stream that supports fixed or no-cost dial-in. So they lose business to the national ISPs that can provide 1300 and 1900 numbers. Another rural service dies and withers.

Telstra cops the blame for all these issues in regular bashings from every side of the political fence. But who is really to blame? If you were in charge of Telstra you'd have a damn hard job convincing shareholders to stump up the cash to connect all those remote dwellings across this vast continent. No matter how you figure it, you are never going to get a financial return on that investment. And the so-called competition in telecommunications has proved that it is only interested in competing where it can make maximum profits.

The only one left to blame is the Government, no matter which one is in power. Successive governments have shown some sympathy for non-capital city dwellers by pegging phone call costs and subsidising mail delivery by Australia Post. But none has gone so far as to stipulate that Internet access must also be regarded as an essential service. Certainly not fast, reliable Internet access. Anything less won't make life in the bush easier.

The only places blessed with a decent level of Internet access outside the capital cities are those places that also happen to be tourist havens. The hordes of backpackers streaming through these idyllic places make it possible to pay for the infrastructure required. There are many more places on the map that are never going to attract the required backpacker economy to allow them to join the wired world on their own.

We all expect the people who live out there to damn well stay out there. We enjoy the food they grow and we like the money earned from their mines. It's about time we paid them properly for their contribution to our nice comfortable standard of living. We could start by letting them play with our Internet.

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Ian Yates

PC World
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