“You do it once, you do it right and you do it with fibre,” independent MP Tony Windsor said of broadband yesterday. From his New England vantage point, the differences between Labor’s National Broadband Network (NBN) and the Coalition’s late entry are stark.
Instead of the glossy hand-waving of the government’s TV adverts, here’s a few examples of how ubiquitous metropolitan-equivalent broadband could transform regional Australia.
Office jobs are no longer limited to the Big Smoke, or even the nearest regional centre. Or even an office. You no longer have to herd people into the same room so they can collaborate. And while the workplace certainly has a social aspect, always-on high-bandwidth video links can provide co-workers with much the same level of ambient intimacy as if they were in adjacent cubicles.
Internet service provider iiNet has discovered that call centre staff are happier and more productive working from home. It saves them building a call centre, and they can hire people who only want to work three hours a day.
Same for education. Students needn’t abandon their family and friends. University tutorials can take place via video conference. Indeed, tutors needn’t be based at the university. They can work from wherever there’s a data link. As can the lecturers. As can administrative staff.
If your vision of regional Australia can’t move beyond farming, then consider the online livestock auctions already starting to happen. Farmers upload high-def video of their stock, bidders participate from their offices, and transport is only called in once the final destination is known. Saves fuel, saves carbon, saves stress on the livestock. Better meat, cheaper. Even Bob Katter’s bananas can be sold more efficiently.
And yes, there’s e-health. Consulting with a specialist from your local GP’s office rather than travelling to a city hospital is the canonical example. But it also means nurses can stay in touch with outpatients without having to bring them into a hospital, and without burning the road miles. Consulting with a psychiatrist can be done from home.
Indeed, with emerging low-cost medical sensors, people need only stay in hospitals when actual physical assistance is required. Again, the herd-everyone-together need is reduced. The very concept of ‘hospital’ will be transformed.
Cities are all about sharing resources and collaborating in factories and offices on a massive scale. Ubiquitous broadband and more flexible transport systems reduce the need for this urbanisation. Could the regional decline be reversed? That’s what Windsor is seeing.
Of course these benefits — plus the ones we haven’t thought of yet — would come from any kind of broadband. Except…
The NBN is rolling out now, with published coverage maps, and Labor just promised to fast-track rural Australia. The Coalition’s plan is still just a plan.
The NBN makes gigabit fibre available to 93% of the population, no ifs or buts. Not everyone will need or even want the full capacity, just as not everyone buys today’s top broadband plans either, but it’s there if it’s wanted. The Coalition’s plan leaves it up to the market. Regional Australia knows what that means.
The NBN’s fibre is much closer to an equal two-way data path. You can send that high-def video just as easily as receiving it. You’re a participant, not merely a passive viewer. The Coalition’s plan to bring just ADSL2+ to the regions, or wireless, just can’t deliver the same kinds of uplink speeds. No matter how often they repeat their mantra of “wireless is getting faster”, the physics can’t be avoided. Fibre already is faster. Both ways. And always will be.
But most importantly, the NBN provides regional towns with exactly the same broadband connections as the capital cities, at the same price. For a rural Australia that’s sick of enduring second-class infrastructure, they finally get to catch up. And Windsor knows if you want to win a race, and you’re starting from behind, you need to sprint faster than everyone else.
For Tony Windsor, that means an advertising production company could just as easily operate from Uralla rather than Ultimo, the architect could be in Tenterfield not Toorak — and with much lower real estate prices.