Digital tech advice service run by volunteers turn to paid staff specialising in remote connectivity

Key points:

  • The NFF will establish and operate a digital technology hub to improve the digital capabilities of regional Australians

  • The federally-funded hub will provide information and support online and over the phone

  • Volunteers for Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia used to provide troubleshooting support but cannot continue to do so

The Federal Government has stepped in to bolster a volunteer program advising on the best telecommunication solutions for regional, rural, and remote homes and businesses, turning it over to paid staff of the National Farmers Federation.

Troubleshooting support had previously been provided by volunteer lobby group Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia (BIRRR), which said it does not have the capacity to continue providing the service.

The National Farmers Federation (NFF) said the digital tech hub will include a hotline staffed five days a week by skilled employees in regional New South Wales, a new website with fact sheets on connectivity issues, and new social media pages.

NFF general manager of corporate affairs Charlie Thomas said it will work closely with BIRRR to develop the hub.

BIRRR co-founder Kristy Sparrow said the group has long advocated for a troubleshooting team as it struggled to provide the service in addition to its advocacy work.

"We've spent tens of thousands of hours on troubleshooting and we've gained a lot of skills and experience in the space, and as a group of volunteers we just couldn't continue the large volume of work required," Ms Sparrow said.

"We really hope that the new tech hub can build on what we've learnt and continue to provide independent advice on connectivity based on individual needs."

But the NFF has "big shoes to fill" to improve connectivity for outback Australians, says one north-west Queensland grazier.

Ashley Gallagher from Sawtell Creek station in Normanton in the Gulf Country said he had sought information from BIRRR about providers and plans for his Sky Muster satellite service and believes the NFF has a big job ahead of them.

"I don't know whether a paid person would be as dedicated to doing that work," Mr Gallagher said.

He said BIRRR was very good at sourcing information to address issues such as those with his radio telephone service, and their advocacy had helped secure greater internet allowances for people in the bush.

Significant need for troubleshooting

The hub was funded under the Federal Government's $220 million Stronger Regional Digital Connectivity Package, announced in 2019.

It was in response to the Regional Telecommunications Review, which recommended a hub be established to provide independent and factual information on digital choices to regional residents.

Ms Sparrow said the group is keen to find out more about what the NFF has planned and will meet with them next week.

"We really hope that they listen to people on the ground about what the issues are and not just file the issue away … so people can actually get closure on their issue," she said.

"[People need to] get the best advice for their particular needs as well, and not be told that 'this is the best connection for you' without a little bit of research into what that family or particular resident is looking for in a connection."

Mr Thomas said the NFF has no plans to reinvent the wheel.

"The whole foundation of the digital tech hub is really building on that great work that the BIRRR volunteers have done over the last six years," he said.

"For us, we'll be taking on more of the troubleshooting role."

It is expected to be operational before the end of 2020.

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