The air is crisp, and Claire Gonzales’ nose is pink. Steam curls from the cup of black coffee sat beside her, while the sun sparkles on the dewy lawn. Bleating sheep cut through the stillness of the morning, and over the top of the low garden fence, Gonzales can see her dad and little sister guiding the dawdling sheep into the yards. It’s a little too cold to be sat outside, but inside the house she only gets about one bar of 3G, nowhere near enough to sit her online mid-term. The humble back verandah of her Broomehill farmhouse in WA’s Great Southern has become her university campus. Rain, hail or shine it’s the only place she can get just enough reception to connect to her online classes and assessments. If she’s lucky.
The Coronavirus outbreak has seen almost all of Australia’s rural university students forced to pack up their lives in the city and move back to the farm, where poor internet connection and barely-there mobile coverage has made studying online a major problem.
Gonzales is a second-year nursing student at Notre Dame University and usually lives in Perth to study and work. When coronavirus hit, her uni transitioned online. She also lost her job at the local café and had to move home to the farm. Living in Perth was simply too expensive for a jobless student, and the farm is a much safer place in these days of COVID-19.
Gonzales logs on, steadying her laptop on the dark wooden table where she and her mum have a cup of tea every morning, chat, and listen to the magpies warble in the ancestral gumtrees surrounding the house. Hot spotting her phone data to her laptop she signs in and begins her exam. She focuses hard, eyes flicking from the questions to the hotspot logo in the top right corner of her laptop, constantly making sure her internet is still connected.
The internet is slow, moving from page to page of the exam seems to take forever. Things are going okay. She has studied hard for this and knows most of the answers. Then, halfway through the exam her phone cuts out. As the page freezes so does Gonzales. Reloading the exam will submit her half-finished paper for marking. Heart pounding, she carefully reconnects her phone. The page slowly loads, and luckily the exam hasn’t submitted. Gonzales struggles to focus throughout the rest of the exam, she’s just waiting for the next time the internet cuts out and it’s not such a lucky close call.
Rural university students all over the country are facing the exact same issue. Insufficient infrastructure causes sluggish NBN and limited data capabilities. Thus leaving most rural students unable to use Wi-Fi at all on the farm to study.
Curtin University student Sophie Daw has also moved home to the farm in Ravensthorpe due to coronavirus. “My little sister is in year 12 and home from boarding school, so she needs the internet all day. My mum is also working from home at the moment and my dad is on the internet doing the books for the farm. It’s just too many people for the Wi-Fi to handle. Even if it did work we still can’t get access to enough data out here for us to do our video classes.
“I haven’t even bothered to try do a Collaborate class online yet. I haven’t got a hope in hell of being able to connect to something like that,” she says.
Poor Wi-Fi connection means these students turn to hot-spotting their mobile data to their laptop to connect to the internet. Most mobile providers such as Optus and Vodafone don’t offer their service in rural areas. Providers who do, such as Telstra, have extremely patchy coverage, with mobile black spots throughout rural Australia. This leaves most people in the Wheatbelt and Great Southern unable to get more than one bar of service when outside of a town centre. This is an issue the government is aware of, and a multi step Mobile Black Spot Program has been put in place to improve internet and coverage in rural areas. However, it is a lengthy process. June 2022 is the earliest date these improvements will be operational, and until then people in rural areas will remain disconnected.
Jarna Burrell is an education student at Notre Dame, who calls the spanning horizons and salt pan dotted country of Mount Madden home. In the time of coronavirus, this is where she will complete her second year of university. Her family relies on signal boosters down the road to get any mobile reception on the farm. In Burrell’s area if it’s a very hot or stormy day, power is cut to the boosters, resulting in zero reception on the farm.
“If I have an important class or a test on a day when they cut the power, I’ll have to drive 60kms into town and sit in my car where I can get enough bars to connect,” she says.
Technical expert and owner operator of Lake Grace Tech Communications and Computers Steven Hunt says it is a big problem. “There are so many people frustrated about the internet capacities out here.” He says they don’t even get close to the kind of internet they have access to in the city. “In town the best we’ve got is ADSL2+, which is supposed to give you speeds of 20 gigabytes a second, but it doesn’t. You’re lucky to get three or four, which makes it especially hard when trying to use video streaming programs such as Zoom.”
Claire Gonzales feels like she’s at a large disadvantage. “I don’t think people at uni and in Perth even realise just how much of a hard time we are having out here trying to get basic work done and join video classes, let alone sit tests and exams with such dodgy internet,” she explains in an exasperated tone. “It’s unbelievably stressful, and I’m worried about how well I’m going to do this semester because of it.”
Responses from universities regarding the issue are mixed. Curtin University says it recognises rural students are experiencing connectivity and coverage issues because of TELCO providers. While these issues are out of their control they are helping rural students stay on track with extra support from unit coordinators and extensions on assessments.
Other universities seem to lack an understanding of the problem. When asked about rural students having trouble, an Edith Cowan University spokesperson says students who have connectivity issues are being provided data packs and a laptop loan service as well as e-labs located in their libraries. But none of this is accessible or helpful to rural students having issues. Murdoch appears to be completely unaware of the issue, saying it has received no reports of rural students having connectivity issues. Notre Dame and the University of Western Australia declined comment.
State Education Minister Sue Ellery spoke about the bandwidth and connectivity issues students in rural areas are facing. In parliament on April 16 she said: “The department is continuing to work on solutions for regional and remote areas where infrastructure is limited.” However, when asked if she had spoken to the Minister for Regional Development about a rollout of regional telecoms improvements to ensure baseline connectivity for students the answer was no.
“No”. Unfortunately, this answer is one people in rural Western Australia are all too familiar with. Reports by the ABC show people in rural WA have been fighting for better coverage since 2002. While TELCO providers are very gradually putting in more towers and improving coverage, and internet capacities better than they were five years ago, there is still a long way to go in providing people in rural areas with anything close to the kind of connection available in metropolitan areas. This problem is very much exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis increasing the frustration of rural students who remain disconnected and anxious as the university semester wears on.