It’s odd that PM John Howard and Communications Minister Helen Coonan still stumbled over broadband terminology this week, as noted in Crikey, because the Coalition has been promising rural Australians equal internet access at regular intervals for nearly 12 years.

Back in November 1995, dial-up internet was state of the art. We fired up beige 486s with the year’s big software release, Windows 95 — the first with internet stuff built-in.

We gazed in awe at the newly opened cyber-shelves of Amazon.com. And we gloated that after Finland and the US, Australia was the third-most wired country on the planet in terms of internet connections and computer power per head of population.

John Howard told the National Farmers Federation it was “simply unacceptable that a significant proportion of the population, particularly in regional and remote Australia, should be denied access to the same quality of service as is available in metropolitan areas”.

“A Coalition government will provide access to fast digital services to all Australian small businesses and private individuals [which] will lay the foundation for a vibrant and internationally competitive communications services industry into the twenty-first century.”

The Howard years rolled on, and so did the promises …

October 1997: Howard launches a $250M fund and a five-year regional telecommunications infrastructure program which “will guarantee that people who live in rural and regional Australia will have precisely the same access to electronic commerce and the telecommunications revolution as to fellow Australians in the urban areas of our country”.

March 2004: Then communications minister Daryl Williams launches a National Broadband Strategy including “financial incentive[s] to make high-bandwidth services available to regional Australians at prices comparable with those paid in metropolitan areas.”

June 2007: Senator Coonan promises “equal capabilities” for the bush yet again. She’s a little confused about the details, but apparently WiMaX will solve everything — just like the Springfield Monorail.

But while Howard rolled out promises, everyone else rolled out actual broadband networks. After a decade of Howard at the helm, we’ve dropped out of the OECD broadband rankings’ top 10 completely. Last month, Senator Coonan was left arguing about whether we’ve dropped to 11th place or all the way to 16th.

A suburban apartment in Seoul now has more bandwidth than parts of Sydney’s suburbs. And 12 years later, rural Australia is still playing catch-up.

Stilgherrian blogs at Stilgherrian.

Peter Fray

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