According to Twitter, #NBN ranked fifth out of the ten issues most mentioned on the #ausvotes hashtag. Ahead of immigration, marriage equality, super, jobs and tax cuts. So it is timely that we look at how we are going when it comes to providing access to fast, reliable broadband.
Last week the widely quoted Akamai ‘State of the Internet’ report confirmed our poor performance, ranking Australia 56th in the world on average peak speeds. That’s up four from last time, but still around 30 spots lower than we were just a few years ago. This marginal improvement is moot, however, given that our speed boost was the smallest gain in the Asia Pacific region. We are being left behind.
Internet access is an essential service in the 21st Century. It is not just about people keeping in contact with one another online or watching television. Our lives are increasingly spent interacting with government agencies online, purchasing goods and services over the Internet, and doing business with the aid of a range of digital tools.
Nowhere is this issue more critical than in rural, regional and remote areas. The growing concerns of country folk were highlighted at the annual Broadband for the Bush conference held in Brisbane last month.
Children struggling to complete distance education with limited download speeds, limited data allowances and frequent service disruptions is but one of the issues facing people living outside our major population centres. Driving hours at a time for medical appointments that could be handled online, via video conference or remote diagnostic systems, could largely be avoided if we had high speed broadband throughout the country.
Add the extraordinary emerging opportunities for the so-called “Internet of things” to transform agricultural production, stock management and land conservation, and you have even more reason to be ensuring that people in the country have effective and affordable broadband connectivity.
It was once hoped that the market would meet the demand for ubiquitous broadband. Instead, as history showed, service providers only went where it was profitable. Geographically challenged areas were left largely unserved – especially in the bush.
It was never going to be viable to build a broadband network covering such a large country, or to deliver the sort of Internet speeds that will arguably be needed in the coming decades if we focused entirely on the direct financial cost. Such an approach completely ignores the broader benefits to the economy and our social fabric through greater productivity in rural, regional and remote communities, better national education and health outcomes, and the increased viability of non-metropolitan areas as alternative and sustainable places to live.
If we keep arguing about the costs over a four year budget cycle we are unlikely to see a universally acceptable outcome. We need to be building a future-proofed NBN that is seen as a critical long term investment.
As Internet Australia recently told the Senate NBN committee, the benefit of deploying fibre is that it has virtually unlimited capacity for increased delivery speeds as the technology at each end is upgraded from time to time. Just as people in our major cities deserve fibre not a technically outdated copper FTTN service, people in rural and regional areas need fibre, or at the very least fixed wireless, unless they are so remote that satellite really is the only viable option.
The Productivity Commission is currently holding an inquiry into the Universal Service Obligation – a scheme designed to ensure that everyone can have a basic telephone. Internet Australia has called for the USO to be extended to include broadband connectivity.
If we have genuine ambitions to become an innovation nation we need a fit-for-purpose broadband network. If we are to see the Internet better used for social development we need to eliminate the ‘digital divide’ and ensure that everyone has access to fast, reliable and affordable broadband.
When the Snowy Mountains Scheme was launched it did not have bipartisan support. However, once the project was underway both sides of politics came together and agreed that it was a critical piece of infrastructure and it was universally supported. We need the same approach to be taken with the NBN.
Laurie Patton is CEO Internet Australia.