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Kristy’s crusade: How a country mum became the face of the Data Drought

Last week, Kristy Sparrow received recognition for her tireless work as a co-founder of Better Internet for Regional, Rural and Remote (BIRRR) Australia. Kristy speaks with AustralianFarmers about BIRRR’s growth, from a brainwave to a national movement.

Kristy Sparrow was awarded the Rural Community Leader of the Year by ABC Rural and the Kondinin Group. This award “highlights unsung heroes who keep farming communities vibrant”. 

Better Internet for Regional, Rural and Remote Australia: the early days

In October 2014, Kristy and Kylie Stretton co-founded the Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia (BIRRR) on Facebook when they both noticed unexplained excessive usage on their mobile broadband data.

Kristy – a mother of 2 from Alpha, QLD – had faced ongoing frustration with mobile broadband data usage when educating her twins via distance education, and both women had been confronted with very limited internet to run their businesses.

Sparrow family - photo by Sally Cripps, Fairfax Media

The Facebook group was established so people in a similar situation could share their frustrations.

“It just snowballed from there," Kristy said.

"In just under two years, the group has grown to have almost 10,000 members. We never thought it would grow to this extent.” 

The Facebook page now provides information and support on telecommunications services to those living in rural, remote and regional areas. The volunteer admin team of BIRRR has grown to five women with many more volunteers gathering information across the often-confusing landscape of bush broadband. This information is collated and delivered via their website and Facebook and Twitter groups to people in regional and remote areas of Australia using #betterbushcomms and #datadrought. 

“What I love about BIRRR is that we have developed a community where people can come for information and any member can offer advice and support to help with troubleshooting,” Kristy said.

Better Internet for Regional, Rural and Remote Australia Team

While dedicated to the group, Kristy said she does get irritated that a group of volunteers had to stand up and develop a system to assist bush internet users – a task which should be managed effectively by service providers, NBN and the government.

“There is no one-stop shop to go to to find out information on all telecommunications needs in rural, remote and regional areas. Telecommunications as a whole is a very confusing industry,” Kristy said.

“The difficulty is knowing where to go for what issue and is very dependant on you knowing what technology you are using. Is the issue something in your house, with your provider or an NBN issue? How far are you away from a tower? What type of modem are you using? Have you got an antenna or a legal booster?

“Customer service across the telecommunications industry is also not meeting the needs of rural and regional users.” 

Shining a light on the Data Drought

In 2016, BIRRR took their work one step further by distributing a survey to 6000 BIRRR members investigating consumers’ internet experience in the bush. Over 700 members completed the survey and another 1000 attempted to complete the survey but were unable to do so – most likely due to unstable internet connections!

There is no one-stop shop to go to to find out information on all telecommunications needs in rural, remote and regional areas.
Kristy Sparrow, co-founder of Better Internet for Regional, Rural and Remote Australia

Working with James Cook University, the survey results found that rural, regional and remote people are severely disadvantaged in terms of access, speeds, cost and reliability of their internet connections, whether they be via mobile broadband or via satellite.

“I think the survey clearly demonstrated that the severe disadvantages country customers face is not a one-off thing. The diverse stories we gathered from the survey show it’s extremely widespread regardless of the manner in which people communicate,” Kristy said.

A snapshot of the survey results

Internet in regional, rural and remote (RRR) Australia is mainly used for business
88 per cent of RRR respondents stated current data did not meet their needs

Mobile broadband costs those surveyed an average of $9.27 per GB, with some consumers paying up to $20 per GB

Satellite broadband costs an average of $15.96 per GB, with some consumers paying up to $70 per GB
63 per cent of respondents are shaped [speed lowered] more than six times per year, with over 40 per cent being shaped every single month
74 per cent of mobile broadband users and 89 per cent of satellite users have download speeds under 5Mbps
72 per cent of mobile broadband users had to purchase extra equipment at their own cost, usually between $1000-$2000
73 per cent of respondents do not have reliable mobile coverage
41 per cent said their address would not register on the NBN database
65 per cent of people were not confident they were aware of their NBN options
92 per cent gave a score of six or above, indicating they would recommend the BIRRR to friends and family
Media release, ‘Getting left behind’, Better Internet for Regional, Rural and Remote Australia

The results of the Regional Internet Access Survey, 2016 can be found here. This report, along with case studies and recommendations, was presented to the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network by BIRRR representatives in April 2017.

Illustrations for (BIRRR) 2016 Regional Internet Access Survey - https://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/45992/1/BIRRR-Report-2016-SURVEY-RESULTS-final.pdf

Partnering for impact

The Rural, Regional and Remote Communications Coalition (RRRCC) was formed in 2016 to highlight the collective concerns of families, businesses and communities about inequitable access to telecommunications services in the bush.

BIRRR was one of the group’s founding members, and has been instrumental in shaping the agenda and leading its advocacy efforts.

RRRCC spokesperson and NFF President, Fiona Simson, said Kristy’s role in the joint campaign has been critical.

“Kristy and BIRRR have become synonymous with the data drought cause. They have stepped up to provide leadership where governments and telcos failed.

“The network and expertise BIRRR brings to the RRRCC are instrumental to its success,” Ms Simson said.

Market Check Founder Brett Stevenson with Rural Community Leader of the Year Award winner, Kristy Sparrow

“The RRRCC has given Bush Telecommunications a very strong voice, the number of organisations now involved reaffirm how important connectivity is to regional Australia," Kristy said.

"Reliable and affordable telecommunications are an essential part of regional businesses and everyday life. Not only is it important for regional businesses to grow and prosper, it is also vital for community safety, education, health and social connections."

"Together as a coalition we hope to collaborate with all sides of politics and the telecommunications industry as a whole to bring #betterbushcomms to regional Australia as soon as possible."

On the horizon

Kristy says the aim of BIRRR was always to be an advocacy and information group. While this has been achieved, BIRRR also provides specific troubleshooting and support services for rural families and businesses living in the ongoing grip of the #datadrought.

“Other essential services providers such as power and water, manage to do their own troubleshooting of issues, and do not expect a volunteer group to do it for them,” says Kristy.

If you take one look at the website, you see very quickly that the work of this group continues to be vast with hundreds of volunteer hours utilised in preparing submissions, responding to media, preparing facts sheets, and maintaining the website and social media channels. While this group also run farms, have jobs, study, and have children, they also volunteer their time to 200 calls for help each week fighting for better internet access in the bush using limited, unreliable and costly internet of their own.

 “While BIRRR’s ambition – to become redundant - feels like a very distant dream, our aim is to get back to advocacy and lobbying and let the telecommunications industry do their own troubleshooting and customer support," Kristy said.

"It is critical that the industry as a whole sees how important this is to regional consumers and makes steps to ensure that issues are resolved quickly and thoroughly. "

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