The importance of high-speed broadband in regional Australia

It is still a battle to extend the perception of the importance of high-speed broadband beyond fast access to the internet or to Netflix.

But the social and economic benefits are equally important, especially looking towards medium- and long-term future development of the region. The healthcare, government services and education sectors are undergoing massive transformations, and more and more of these services will be delivered via broadband.

Business requirements are seeing a rapid move to cloud computing – this can take around 30% out of traditional ICT costs; farmers will be among the largest users of IoT technologies and most of those services will be based in the cloud.

All of this requires not just high speed; even more importantly it needs infrastructure that delivers resilience, robustness, low latency, security and so on.  One of the key problems ahead is that the broadband network in regional Australia will be second-rate compared with the services that will become available in the future in metro-Australia, and yet arguably rural Australia depends even more heavily on high quality broadband services, since they are often further away from healthcare, education and business facilities.

Around 2005 regional Australia – supported by the National Party, the Farmers’ Federation, the regional ABC radio stations and many others – started the campaign for better broadband. It was that push that led to the birth of what we now know as the NBN. Between 2005 and 2009 this was solely focussed on regional Australia with bipartisan support for a broadband infrastructure investment of around $5 billion.

Following the Great Financial Crisis in 2009 the regional plan was expanded to a national plan, with 96% of all premises to be connected to an FttH infrastructure.

However since the Coalition came into power in 2013 this high quality network was replaced with second-rate infrastructure. In relation to the fixed connections this infrastructure is based on re-using the old copper network, and this in particular will have a negative effect on regional connections, where the quality of that network is uncertain. Furthermore the distances between premises and the exchanges in the bush is greater and this also has a negative effect on broadband quality.

It was rather sad to see that once the Coalition came into power the National Party – initially the champion in the region – ceased advocating for better broadband in rural Australia and began to wholeheartedly support the second-rate broadband technology that is now being rolled out in regional Australia.

This will have severe consequences for a range of services that increasingly rely on delivery over high quality broadband infrastructure. For it to happen significantly larger parts of regional Australian will need to be linked to fibre networks. It will be very difficult for regional Australia to now receive a similar quality of broadband-based services as their metropolitan counterparts. This will make it difficult to deliver ubiquitous healthcare, educational and government services across the country.

Those who rely on the satellite will have a further disadvantage as – because of its higher latency – this infrastructure will have problems providing good quality cloud-based access.

As quality high-speed broadband will remain elusive for many people in regional and rural Australia the region will become more and more reliant on mobile broadband services. In that respect 5G will be a real boost for those users; but in reality it will take roughly a decade before these services become commercially available throughout the whole of regional Australia.

So for the next 10 years it will be more like muddling on. Also mobile-based broadband for services will always be significantly more expensive than services delivered over fixed networks.

However, beyond some local initiatives and a request for more mobile coverage, there doesn’t seem to be a significant concerted push so far for better broadband in the bush, as was the case a decade ago.

Poor quality broadband access, therefore, will remain something that will hamper economic and social development in regional Australia for many years to come.

Paul Budde


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