Fighting the Infrastructure – Gaming in the Bush

Fighting the Infrastructure - Gaming in the Bush

A lot has been said about Australia’s internet infrastructure and with good reason. Australia had a real chance to leap ahead of the pack but ballsed it up in a big way thanks to shortsighted politicians and excessive traditional media influence. Some parts of Australia have it pretty good, up to 1000mbps connections. Some parts of Australia have it not so good with 50mbps connections being the best you can hope for. Then there are the really hard done by Aussies, forced to rely on ancient ADSL technology, terrible satellite connections or unreliable mobile networks for their coverage. It is frankly a hodgepodge of systems out there and it seems that luck is the only thing you can rely on when it comes to your postcode getting good internet. 

But what is it like to live in an area the internet forgot? How does a connected lifestyle work? More importantly, how can you game without a pipeline to the world? 

Let me set the scene for you. A dashing, young video games journo has it good as far as his internet connection is concerned. A 250mpbs connection that is provided through a fibre to the premises connection. Games can be downloaded in a flash, articles can be edited without issue and the kids can still watch Netflix while he is podcasting with his fellow journos. But then he decided to renovate his house, so for 6 months he will be picking up the family and moving them to the in-law’s farm, 20 minutes out of town. There is no fibre to tap into, hell there isn’t even a phone line. One bar of 4G connection is it. How does this journo survive? How does he keep doing the job he loves?

The setting for this story

That games journo is me. Well, perhaps not the young and dashing parts, but everything else is true and I wanted to share what it has been like to simply get reliable internet in a location that is no more than 15 minutes from a major ACT suburb, less than 10 minutes to the regional town of Bungendore. Along with the proximity to both Canberra and Bungendore, the area is also home to HQJOC, the headquarters of the Australian Defence Force, presumably one of the more technologically capable buildings in Australia.

So it is no surprise that I underestimated the challenge of simply getting working internet, let alone a connection that allowed for productive use of time. It all started when we moved out in October last year. It quickly became apparent that the 4G connection wasn’t going to cut it.  Both my Xbox and Playstation really didn’t like the fact my connection was spotty. Games I had bought and paid for no longer functioned reliably, any online functionality (not just multiplayer) was out of the question, hell even games on disc struggled to function correctly due to the industry’s obsession with patching games. 

It was under these conditions that I realised it was going to be impossible to continue as Editor of Player 2 with such a terrible connection. I was forced to take my Xbox to my day job and stay late in the office just so I could review Forza Horizon 5. I couldn’t even reliably jump onto the backend of this very website to fix a simple typo.  We live in an ultra-connected world and poor mobile reception is simply not up to the task. So I began looking for other options, surely there had to be something better, something more reliable. Farms, Orchards and Ranches need the internet too right? 

So what I discovered is that while these people do need the internet, there are very few business, or politicians for that matter, that care. My first step was to investigate Satellite NBN, which offered a whopping 25mbps (average of 10 during peak times) download with a 150gig download limit for the measly sum of $100 per month. No you read that right, 100 clams per month for a service that is worse than ADSL. But I needed the internet, I was desperate, so I regretfully picked up the phone (once I found a location with good service) and enquired about getting on board. But as it turns out, I couldn’t get satellite NBN in my location because another building (the main farmhouse, not the cottage we are living in) on the property already had it. Even taking into account that the two buildings are about 200m apart and there isn’t a WiFi booster out there that can cover that distance, Satellite NBN simply said “tough luck, there is nothing we can do.”

But, as often is the case when governments and authorities fail to act, industry sees an opportunity to make money and solve a problem in that process. In this case, that business is Tesla and the solution is Starlink. Touted as the internet solution for everyone outside of a major city, Starlink boasts some pretty impressive stats. It allows for downloads of up to 200mbps and promises to be the saviour for people like me everywhere. The even more impressive thing is, that these statements are infact true. But, in rural Australia especially, Starlink has been a victim of its own success. Every man, woman, cat, dog and kangaroo wants to get a shiny new Starlink dish for their premises and as a result, it is overburdened in a lot of areas already, meaning up to an 18 month wait time to get one. 

This was the case for me, but I was desperate. So after parting with the princely sum of $800 and through some manipulation of my home address, I manged to get a Starlink dish sent to me at my work. Now I strongly suggest you don’t do this, I ran the very real risk of setting it up and it not working, but as I said, I was desperate. I took it home, crossed all my fingers and toes, pulled it out of the box and set it up.  Then, just like that, I thought all my problems were solved, the internet fired up, games began to download, tears of joy were shed. It looked like 2 months of screaming at my computer was finally over and I could once again be a productive member of an online world. 

A good night at the farm.

By this point, I am sure you can see the “but” stumbling around the corner, can’t you? In this case, the but is the internet drops out, for 10-30 seconds every 15-20 minutes.  For most people it isn’t a huge problem and a lot of software handles small dropouts quite well, but for someone like me, someone who creates a stream of online content it introduces new frustrations. Video calls, essential to podcasting (or work from home in a COVID world for that matter) became unreliable, any sort of online service game like Destiny or Elder Scrolls Online feels the need to boot you as soon as it happens and using some streaming services became an exercise in frustration. It was like I was allowed in the nightclub, but every 20 minutes I had to leave the party only to be let back in again.

Now I realise that this is more than likely because I am using Starlink at an address it isn’t supposed to be used at and had I waited until the service was available officially, I likely wouldn’t have these issues but waiting 18 months for anything in the tech world is just too long, especially when something as important to me as Player 2 rests on it. I was literally forced to do something risky to ensure I had the simple means to run a website. That the dodgy path is the only solution for someone who is closer to the centre of Canberra than a lot of actual Canberran suburbs are is, frankly, a joke. Sadly, I have no hope of this changing for the better either. 

At the recent Australian IT Journalism Awards, the Minister for Communication Paul Fletcher had the nerve (or the ignorance) to give a speech to a room full of IT and Gaming journalists about how well the Coalition had done with the NBN and how everything was going swimmingly. What’s worse is, he clearly believed his own bullshit rhetoric despite years of IT professionals from across Australia and around the world telling the Government they were making things worse not better.  Who knows what a Labor government would bring, but frankly I am not holding onto hope for them either. It seems now the NBN is “completed” (I say that in the loosest definition of the word) it is no longer something that is important to either our governing body or their opposition.

But, this is just my story. When my house renovations are finished, I will be back to my fibre connection, once again able to traverse the internet in my way, at my leisure. For tens of thousands of Australians, that is simply not the case, they will be stuck with half baked solutions that not only make gaming a nightmare but in a world where work from home is expected, unable to continue to do their jobs.  Australia could have been the land of promise, the land of technological advancements, hell the land of professional game development, but thanks to our internet situation, we are simply the land of wasted potential. If someone, such as I, can’t run their little corner of the internet properly in this situation, how can we ever be considered a land of opportunity in a world as connected and online as the one we live in now?

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