Broadband needs overhaul

Some of the world’s poorest people have better access to the Internet than many Australian farms

BROADBAND is key infrastructure for the 21st Century, Catherine Middleton argued in a recent article on The Conversation. It’s hard to argue against that proposition.

The Internet is a virtual pipe that carries commerce, education, news, knowledge, data, delight (some of which comes in form of porn and cat gifs, but not all) and a whole lot of the mundane but essential communication people have been engaging in forever.

A few years ago, the Internet was optional - you could live comfortably without it. Now, that’s not the case. The ‘net’s cost-effectiveness means that human affairs are increasingly being conducted online. Being offline is no longer merely an inconvenience, but a denial of essential service.

In the Australian bush, where the Internet pipe too often turns into a kinked garden hose, people who are already geographically isolated and under-serviced are finding those conditions compounded by inadequate broadband. Some of the world’s poorest people have better access to the Internet than many Australian farms and stations.

The NBN satellite launched to great fanfare last week is a partial solution, and possibly the only solution to very isolated locations.

But a satellite has redundancy built into it. It’s very hard to get to with a spanner in a decade’s time, when the internet may shift by orders of magnitude. Recall that it hasn’t been a decade since the first iPhone was introduced and shook up our concept of what the internet meant.

If broadband really is essential infrastructure for the 21st Century, then let’s build flexible infrastructure to support it.

I’m thinking less of the transmission technology, which is always changing, but the infrastructure to support that technology.

Here’s a proposal. It will inevitably be full of holes, but it’s a thought-piece to ponder.

Good government should create the conditions in which innovation can prosper. So let’s make transmission towers, and the costs of powering them and cabling them with fibre, the responsibility of government.

These towers have become the basic infrastructure of our technological age, right along with roads, sewers and water supply. It’s not inappropriate that they are a public service.

Under this proposal, the country is gradually gridded with publicly-owned towers, which are available for anyone to hang transmission technology on.

That might be the mobile network equipment of the existing carriers, a regional high-capacity broadband network funded by local government or an entrepreneur, high accuracy base stations installed by precision farming groups, the NBN wifi stations, or the components of a national location system.

(The Spatial Information CRC calculated that a national ground-based positioning system capable of delivering two centimentre accuracy could return $32 billion to the Australian economy over 20 years. That would go a long way to balancing the budget.)

Existing towers owned by Telstra and the other carriers would be bought up by government. In the case of Telstra, the deal would be sweetened by allowing Telstra to phase out its Universal Service Obligation to the copper network in rural areas. Instead, these areas would be serviced by industrial-grade mobile connections, supported with battery backup.

My parents have this system, and it’s good. It would be even better if it wasn’t linked to Telstra’s diabolical support service, which cost me about eight hours of my life when I visited the ancients a few weeks ago.

Separating tower ownership from the carriers might help spur some competition in the bush. In areas where the mainstream carriers can’t make a case for providing a service, the towers are open to local governments, entrepreneurs and farmer groups to hang technology on.

There would be a cost-recovery charge for using towers, but to encourage the provision of services in more remote areas, the charge might be built around some sort of traffic rating, rather than one-size-fits all.

There are some sizeable questions to be resolved. For instance, mobile technology doesn’t have the bandwidth of fibre or satellite. But with the entire planet gone mad for mobile, it is also the safest technology bet. Billions of R&D dollars are being spent on addressing mobile’s limitations. CSIRO’s Ngara technology already promises a partial solution.

So there it is: an amateur’s vision of a public infrastructure project that throws broadband mobile services and a platform for innovation across the country. It lacks a few details, like feasibility studies and costings. But I’ve run the idea past a few people thinking about this space, and got positive responses.

I’m interested in what you think: matt.cawood@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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FarmOnline
Matthew Cawood

Matthew Cawood

is the national science and environment writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
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READER COMMENTS

lou
9/10/2015 11:15:28 AM

Good points, Matthew. Maybe you should send this piece to our new Communications Minister Mitch Fifield to give him some ideas about how to fix woeful internet across much of rural Australia.
Pete
9/10/2015 12:49:54 PM

Well Said Mathew, On our place before we could ever have a wireless internet system, we would actually need Phone signal first. I do have one big hill that if I drive up on top, and stand in the back of the ute, and point the phone in one particular direction I can sometimes get 2 bars of signal on the Phone!
chops
9/10/2015 10:42:30 PM

Some of the worlds poorest countries do have superior internet and mobile phone coverage to a lot of Australian farms. Countries like Nigeria, Ghana,Tanzania, Kenya leave us in the shade for access and quality of service. The thing is that their infrastructure is all privately owned by hedge fund and private equity investors. The reason is volume. Nigeria for example has a population of some 167million people and they almost to a person have a mobile phone. A private investor gets return renting the infrastructure, in Australia the return must come from the broader benefit the access brings.
chops
9/10/2015 10:52:26 PM

cont. In other words, I agree that our government needs to understand that a private investor will never get the volume to generate a return because no matter how much more productive and innovative a country is as a result of wide access to decent internet and mobile services, a private investor still only gets return from the direct volume of use so won't play. Australia, overall however, is a massive beneficiary of the productivity and innovation provided by a small population with good access. There is a great case here for public infrastructure.
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