Opinion: the slings and arrows of outrageous broadband

Matt Gilchrist is an experienced practice manager with an interest in IT. He has been a rural general practice manager since 2003.

Darling Downs Skin Cancer Clinic is located in East Toowoomba in Queensland, one of the first suburbs to be ‘given’ the NBN. While the NBN has come with many promises, it has also come with many dramas.

I was hoping to get faster internet and cheap ‘quality’ phone calls for my practice, but the journey hasn’t been easy.

Initially we were told that even though we are in the NBN area, we weren’t going to be able to get the NBN because we have multiple tenants in our building. We had purchased a new telephone system that could be upgraded to work with NBN just in case.

Then in April and May 2014, local businesses were informed by NBN Co that we were to lose our copper lines and that we would have to go onto the NBN. This was unexpected.

Some Toowoomba businesses lost their copper phone lines from August 28 last year, but many of those that were flagged to lose copper lines were in premises that hadn’t had the NBN connected at the end of the previous week.

Amid much controversy and public outcry, the copper lines remained only until the NBN was an alternative, but many only had days to get it working. Not weeks or months – days.

Our experience

Darling Downs Skin Cancer Clinic was in the second tranche of Toowoomba suburbs to transfer to the NBN. Our copper lines were disconnected late in April 2015.

I had received an email from Telstra back in December 2013 stating that we were unable to get connected to the NBN because we were a multi-tenant property, despite an external NBN box being affixed to the outside wall of the building.

However, out of the blue, on May 28, 2014, I was contacted by one of the junior sales team at the local Telstra business office saying that we were now eligible to get the NBN. During this call, the sales person made a ‘voice recording’ contract getting me switched to the NBN and offering me free phone calls with the high speed NBN (100/40) at $120 per month. This is and was very similar to the NBN home plans that are available from various ISPs.

However, we had to get the ‘inside box’ for NBN installed. This took a number of attempts from NBN Co, and ultimately took about three weeks to achieve. There was lots of blame shifting between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ NBN teams.

High speed NBN broadband was switched on in June 2014. My existing ADSL modem router was unsuitable for NBN, and Telstra had sent a ‘business grade’ router to the premises via courier. I was planning on testing this device on our network prior to getting the ADSL disconnected. Like all medical centres we rely heavily on the internet.

Within hours of the NBN being available, my ADSL connection was switched off. The first I knew of this was when the staff called me to say that the internet was down. On attending the clinic and phoning Telstra I found out what had happened – the ADSL was simply deactivated because I had ordered NBN broadband, and they had proof of delivery on the new business-class router.

The business-class router that was sent by Telstra is a re-branded Technicolour TG797n, and this device was locked down so that I was unable to change the local LAN IP address, or manage my local LAN DHCP devices with the degree of control that I would like. Even a factory reset just brought back the Telstra settings. (I’m sure that if I spent enough time I could crack this device, I just haven’t yet. More to the point I shouldn’t have to.)

Luckily we have Officeworks and Harvey Norman in Toowoomba, and I was able to obtain an alternative suitable router off the shelf. Most wholesaler suppliers are ‘next day’ at best. I didn’t get the advantage of cheaper prices though as I had to pay full retail.

While this was happening, we had no internet for about four hours.

Costs add up

No copper lines means that things like fax, EFTPOS and security systems aren’t going to work. The NBN has two UNI-V ports which can be used for ATM-compatible phones and devices. Without a compatible device, you would need an ATM filter for your phone or device. I haven’t found a fax machine that is ATM compatible, and I spent quite a bit of time looking.

EFTPOS turns out to really easy, but only because we already had an integrated Tyro EFTPOS machine. Tyro is internet based. Traditional bank EFTPOS machines would need an ATM filter and use one of the UNI-V ports.

The security system needed to be upgraded to a machine that has a SIM GPRS dialler built in. Initially the security company wanted to charge more for the monitoring of this new device, but they agreed to charge the same fee, and pay for the SIM card that is required. The security system upgrade was done by the landlord and cost $400.

Fax was going to be ugly with an ATM filter. Our fax machine was pretty old and the drum needed replacing, so I opted for a new fax machine, a few models higher than the one that it replaced and one that allows for internet faxing. I found an Australian-owned online fax company that has SSL encrypted fax-to-email and SSL encrypted email-to-fax services.

The staff use the fax machine like a traditional fax machine, which was an important consideration. Some users are able to ‘print to the fax machine’, or use an internet fax service by scanning a document and then emailing it, but not all users (especially some of the older doctors) would be happy with that. This is a good compromise.

The fax machine creates an email with a pdf attachment that is sent via an SSL-encrypted connection to the internet fax server. Incoming faxes are sent from the internet fax server via SSL-encrypted connection (where available) to my email server.

The new fax machine cost $500, but the sending of faxes now is far cheaper than via copper lines, and of course there is no line rental. Our monthly fax costs are now about one-third of what they previously cost.

Crossed wires

So from late June 2014, we have high speed NBN broadband, but no one on staff could tell the difference. Banking websites still opened at the same speed, general web browsing seemed the same. Medicare Online would still take seconds to load.

In July 2014 I started to talk to the phone system supplier about the necessary upgrades, and to talk to Telstra about the promised ‘free calls’. It turns out that businesses can’t get free calls. I have an email dated 12 August 2014 from a more senior person at the local Telstra business office that tells me that the junior who ‘sold’ me the NBN plan with free calls was not authorised to do so, and that he didn’t know what he was doing.

Needless to say that the voice-recorded verbal contract was not made available to me and email-only discussions were held from this point forwards.

The offer that Telstra could now give me was $130 per month for all calls to local, STD and mobiles in Australia. Not as good as free calls, but at $255 per month for internet plus calls, we could live with that.

Telstra then told me that the price of $130 per month is per line. This would make our four-phone line business about $645 per month including internet, not counting fax or EFTPOS or alarms.

This is way more than our previous bills had been (about $550 per month including line rental, faxes, phone calls and internet). The best deal that we could get from Telstra was the same cost as pre-NBN, just with significant upgrade costs to our systems.

A lot of discussion followed, including the involvement of the Telecommunications Ombudsman. Essentially we decided to look at our options of using a different ISP rather than Telstra.

We eventually settled for iiNET, who proudly show a worldwide customer service logo on their website. We signed in November 2014 to get NBN (100/40) broadband and a SIP phone contract from iiNet, but it was actually completed in May 2015.

SIP trunking had to be enabled in our phone system. This involved a new card and some different licence fees. Including tech time, this phone system upgrade cost about $1900, over a third of the original purchase price.

Getting the SIP trunks to be reliable has taken months, and was only achieved after much heated discussion, and following Telstra disconnecting the copper lines. We had no phones for a whole day during the transition.

I had to involve our phone system tech again (at our cost). Apparently one of the issues about getting the existing phone numbers ported was that we had a ‘line hunt’ in place (where patients phone our main number and other lines ring if busy – standard practice stuff). We had to disconnect ‘line hunt’, get the numbers ported to the new ISP, and get the phone tech to replicate this line hunt from our phone system. This cost about $700 in tech time.

Getting iiNET to connect NBN broadband was easy, but getting it to work had taken six months and over a hundred hours of my time. I finally got the iiNET NBN 100/40 with a static IP operational two weeks ago.

This week I finally got the last of the Telstra services disconnected.

Is iiNet better to deal with than Telstra? Not yet in my experience.

What has been gained?

I used to be able to upload a 25-30GB back-up from the clinic to home using ADSL 2+ in a few hours. If I had unlimited bandwidth at both ends, I would even consider doing regular offsite back-ups via the internet (no more external hard drives).

Unlimited bandwidth is the issue though. I can get premium 500GB plans, but even that is less than 20 back-ups per month. For one clinic to home this could be feasible, but having multiple clinics this is just unattainable until I can get quality unlimited bandwidth.

Benefits

  • Ability to back up over the internet
  • Supposedly save $350 per month on phone/internet bill
  • Remote access looking at scanned documents is noticeably faster.

Costs

  • Over $3000 worth of upgrades to phone system, fax machine and internet router
  • Approximately 100 hours of my time and heaps of angst.

Continuing

  • No noticeable difference in web browsing speed
  • Still have to deal with an ISP
  • Upload/download speed increase is only useful if other end is also upgraded.

Issues

  • Losing copper lines – fax, EFTPOS and security systems affected
  • Risk mitigation needs to be reviewed (computer systems access, staff downloading movies at work, security system, faxes via email etc)
  • If we lose the NBN (i.e. a backhoe through the fibre optic cable, in the wrong place 200 kms away) then we lose all phones, fax, EFTPOS, internet, downloads, uploads and remote access. Need a failover plan.

Further reading

This is a pretty good guide, and includes pictures of the ‘inside’ NBN equipment - NBN guide.

Matt is a senior consultant at Healthy Business for Doctors, principal of IT4Doctors and part-owner and practice manager at the Darling Downs Skin Cancer Clinic.

Posted in Australian eHealth

Comments   

# Michael Gill 2015-06-01 14:24
This is a great story about what service providers are NOT doing and about how the government decision making has caused a good idea - the original NBN design - to become much the same and more expensive that what was in place. Talk about a loss of innovation! A great user experience article which should worry many who are keen to use the NBN for business purposes. Thank you Matt.
# Terry Brain 2015-06-01 23:04
Thanks for sharing your excruciating story. Unfortunately, the same torture will be inflicted on most other communities, so your tips will help many others.

Just clarifying that you are still using your old copper lines - they just carry different network signals as part of Malcolm Turnbull's "fibre to the node" (FTTN) version of NBN. Internet performance is generally expected to be "a bit" better than ADSL2 over the same copper - so generally not worth voluntary investment.

However, each "node" is usually tightly packed, to service hundreds of neighbours. That makes each node changeover challenging for all parties, with very little consideration currently shown for individual preparations or community concerns.

Your planning tips will therefore be appreciated by many businesses, as will Joe Hockey's tax deductions for all the necessary purchases.
# Terry Brain 2015-06-02 10:32
This site offers good resources for resistance leaders in communities blessed with a long lead time to FTTN:
https://nbnmyths.wordpress.com/why-not-fttn/

However, the alternatives for community leaders appear limited to negotiating:
1. community bulk-buying of upgrades to FTTP - more expensive, but useful. See NBN's Area Switching http://www.nbnco.com.au/connect-home-or-business/technology-choice-program/area-switch.html, or http://www.nbnco.com.au/connect-home-or-business/technology-choice-program/individual-premises-switch.html
2. better deals before signing FTTN contracts (eg technical assistance, community bulk-buying)
3. deferral of node changeovers to FTTN until it offers worthwhile improvements (unwise, due to risks of missing out on fibre-optic cables to the node, then declining phone deals and services). See also http://www.businessspectator.com.au/article/2015/4/10/technology/why-nbn-can-do-without-fibre-node
# Jeff 2015-06-19 03:37
Thanks for sharing your experience. I thought it was just our situation that was like this.

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