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NBN Co’s map in 2015 shows that most of Woombah was not serviced after the West Street fixed wireless tower was commissioned. Residents say that two more towers erected at Palmers Island and Mororo have not made a significant improvement to NBN connectivity. Image: NBN Co 2015

Woombah residents caught in NBN black hole

As far as stories about inept management go, the bungled provision of National Broadband Network (NBN) services for the residents of Woombah features a tangled web of politics, bureaucracy, obfuscation and buck passing.

Seven years after the process began; a recent survey conducted by the Woombah Residents Association has revealed that 60 per cent of the village’s residents are still unable to connect to the NBN.

The association has written to Page MP Kevin Hogan, Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher and Deputy Prime Minister Michael Mc Cormack expressing their dissatisfaction.

The COVID-19 lockdown has served to amplify the problem, with one frustrated couple, Robin and Einion Thomas, writing to Mr Hogan: “After contacting your office my email was sent to [NBN Co’s regional manager] Ian Scott.

“He phoned me and suggested, as we had been unable to connect to the fixed wireless tower, a satellite service would be a good option, [however], a 300Mb plan I saw was for $200 per month.

“It was also suggested we keep our ADSL line, as satellite is limited and ADSL would be needed if we wanted to do streaming, video conferencing and working with cloud-based services.

“…Right now [the ADSL] is struggling and this is putting additional pressures on us in our home-based working environment.

“Neither of the suggestions made by Ian [is] workable, acceptable or affordable to us.”

The saga began in April 2013 when Woombah residents were informed that a 40 metre high fixed wireless (NBN) tower was going to be erected at 97 West Street – within weeks a group of residents known as the Woombah Tower Action Group (WTAG), began lobbying to prevent its construction.

The tower was erected in December 2013 and was commissioned in March 2015.

As it turned out WTAG’s failed campaign was on the money when it was revealed that fewer than two in ten residences were covered by the tower’s broadcast footprint.

One of the group’s members, Dane Webb, wrote to Page MP Kevin Hogan, declaring at the time: “This has to go down in history as one of the most ridiculous exercises ever, as it [the tower’s service area] covers – wait for it – TWO complete streets and a few partial streets.” (‘NBN tower fails to deliver’, Clarence Valley Review, March 23, 2015)

In the 2015 story, NBN Co would or could not offer any explanation as to how it would service the rest of Woombah, instead stating: “NBN Co is committed to delivering fast broadband services to the residents of Woombah and its surrounding communities.

“The timeline for these services will be announced in due course.”

Prior to the 2013 federal election, then candidate and now Page MP Kevin Hogan said: “There’s a lot of concern in the community about these towers and it seems to me they are running them out very quickly and the consultation is not as good as it could be.

“I think there needs to be more transparency [about the process of locating towers] but under our plan you would have fibre to the node rather than towers in most locations.” (‘Coalition Government would stop the NBN towers Northern Star Aug 6, 2013)

However, Mr Hogan did acknowledge at that time that wireless towers would still be required in some remote areas.

A panacea to the problem appeared to be close in March/April 2019 when NBN Co’s regional manager, Ian Scott, advised the Woombah Residents Association that two towers – one at Mororo and another at Palmers Island – would provide NBN services to Woombah residents.

However, according to residents, things have not improved since the towers were commissioned.

On May 12 the residents association wrote in its media release and/or correspondence: “Despite the huge expense involved in building these additional towers fewer than 40 per cent of our community members can successfully access the NBN fixed wireless internet.

“Woombah has a population of approximately 1,000 residents and is dependent on tourism, farming and fishing.

“It is the second fastest growing community in the Clarence.

“The population is set to expand over the next year with the development of 147 new homes in a caravan park in the village.

“…We note that a recent media release from [Communications Minister Paul Fletcher’s] office stated: ‘The importance of fast, affordable broadband delivered quickly has never been clearer than during the current COVID-19 pandemic (27/4/2020).’

“We agree wholeheartedly with your statement and would like to draw your attention to the problems we in Woombah face connecting to the NBN.”

The Independent made contact with Page MP Kevin Hogan on several occasions over a seven-day period, asking specific questions; however, Mr Hogan failed to provide answers and instead sent two emails, both statements from Mr Hogan: “I have raised these concerns with Ian Scott, NBN Local Manager – North NSW. He is working on this matter [May 12].” and, “We have been in regular contact with Ian Scott, NBN Local Manager – North NSW. NBN are [sic] continuing to look at the data to come up with a solution [May 18].”

Mr Scott had not responded before the Independent’s deadline.