21 remote NSW schools struggle on sub-standard internet

Booligal Public School principal Linda Stewart with students in an earlier year. There is a steady stream of new students to the school, but not a steady stream of internet capability.
Booligal Public School principal Linda Stewart with students in an earlier year. There is a steady stream of new students to the school, but not a steady stream of internet capability.

It’s a long wait for 21 remote NSW schools caught in a Department of Education technology black hole that forces them to struggle with some of the slowest internet speeds in Australia.

At Booligal, the far west town Banjo Paterson made famous with his poem Hay, Hell and Booligal - it’s hell for the town’s seven enrolled children this year trying to be part of the web revolution.

Parent Ali McLean has timed internet speeds at the school over the last three years, and the average is two to 3 megabits per second. That’s slow.

Mrs McLean says the slow internet service from a Department of Education contract through Optus that uses the old interim satellite, means the schoolkids miss out on a number of major opportunities.

It isolates them from regional online discussions and virtual excursions.  “It basically stops them from being able to access 21st century learning skills.” Ali McLean says. 

“Due to the fact that 21 schools are locked into a contract that the Department of Education has with Optus,  we are told we can’t escape until the contract runs out - somewhere around 2019.’’

Every Friday this year when school is on, the Booligal kids will hop in a  bus and travel 80km to Hay, where the school kids enjoy high internet speeds and join in online class activities.

“We were told, by the Department it is a situation we basically have to live with.” Booligal will have seven students this year, down three on last year. But Ms McLean says there are many young families in the area with a good stream of students expected over the next decade.

Claire Butler of the Isolated Childrens and Parents Association, whose children attend Clare school,  says she was also told security was an issue the 21 schools could not be migrated  to the new Sky Muster system.

It is frustrating situation for Ali McLean and her two children she has at Booligal school. She has Sky Muster at home, with occasional drop outs, and an NBN tower in Booligal that delivers high-speed internet. But when her kids go to school, it is all backward technology despite great facilities and a great teacher-principal.

In a response, the Department of Education said it could not bring in a new system until security over the internet for children using the system was finalised. NBN could not provide a new service and it was not cost-effective to go to a new contract at the moment.  

The 21 remote public schools on slow internet are:  Bald Blair, Booligal, Afterlee, Kellys Plains, Enngonia, Upper Coopers Creek, Clare, Empire Vale, Tulloona, Wattle Flat, Mallan, Louth, Naradhan, Wanaaring, Whian Whian, Macdonald Valley, Conargo, Tuntable Creek, Weilmoringle, North Star, Lord Howe Island.

The full response from the NSW Department of Education to the issue was:

“Students are provided with filtered internet access appropriate to their cohort as required by the Department’s Duty of Care obligations.  Regardless of whether delivered through satellite or cable, the Department can only consider using internet service providers that have the technical capacity to support our enterprise grade network, secure connectivity, and safe browsing.  This includes access to multicast protocols that allow our data to be used effectively and efficiently with our teaching software.  Consumer grade products do not have these capabilities,’’ the Department of Education said in a response.

  “’We are liaising with NBN and are aware that they are working towards meeting these requirements, but the service is currently focussed on providing domestic broadband services for domestic and commercial rural users. The technology to provide connectivity of similar bandwidth across urban and geographically isolated schools does not exist in a way that can be delivered within a feasible cost-benefit scenario.

   “The Department monitors technological upgrades and market offerings and discusses its technical requirements with numerous vendors including NBN Co in an ongoing fashion.    

“Elements of the hardware, software and network are continuously upgraded with major upgrades undertaken at the conclusion of existing contracts through formal procurement processes.”