South Australian outback. There is very poor network coverage in much of the country. Photo: Getty
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Australia’s grand vision for a national broadband network has shrunk

Big coastal cities do not always get good coverage, let alone the outback.

To English eyes, Australia is enormous. It is vast and wild, a land of flames and poison. Tour guides cheerfully point out mountains where people die every year, listing the nationalities of unfortunate tourists who failed to respect the difficulties of the terrain. Australians speak with pride of bushfires, hand-sized spiders, lethal snakes and huge, dive-bombing magpies in the same way the English might discuss the age of St Paul’s Cathedral or the importance of the Industrial Revolution. There are few things that tie the country together so strongly as its danger . . . aside from a belief that the internet here is broken.

Despite Australia’s terrors, people have been making their marks on this nation for longer than almost any other. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people are part of one of the oldest continuous human cultures, but their presence in modern Australia is marginalised and circumscribed by the country’s colonial history and present: an indigenous person is likely to die 17 years earlier than others. Aboriginal babies, children and adults have poorer health, and chronic illnesses – diabetes and cardiovascular disease in particular – are the biggest causes of death among them. Suicide rates are twice those for the general population and especially high among young men. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up about 2.3 per cent of Australia’s population, but 25 per cent of the numbers in prison.

Closing the gap is of the utmost importance, but Australia’s vastness makes interventions difficult. Indigenous people are usually both more remote and more mobile than other populations, who often stick to the cities and towns around the hospitable coasts. Communication with the red deserts is difficult – particularly as Australia’s internet remains stuck in the past.

Any infrastructure is political, in a country of vast wilderness doubly so. Australia is almost as large as the United States, but where the US has more than 300 million people Australia has 23 million. There are not enough people to make comprehensive, quick internet coverage profitable.

Even the big coastal cities do not always get good coverage from Telstra’s ageing copper network: much of the wiring is poorly maintained and corroded. According to Net Index, Australia has average download speeds of 14.56Mbps, making it 51st worldwide; for comparison, the UK ranks 25th.

But the country’s upload speeds are even worse – 2.89Mbps, compared to the UK’s 5.8Mbps – and this is what most hampers the network. It is impossible to use Skype if you can’t reliably stream video to the network; you can’t rely on cloud services if you can’t save to the cloud. The internet could be used to deliver education, health and elderly care across Australia’s vast distances, but without the ability to upload information quickly and reliably it is impossible to benefit from such two-way applications.

Out of the failure of the telecoms companies, the National Broadband Network was born. The ambition behind the NBN, launched by the Labor government in Tasmania in 2010, was to connect every home and business to the net.

In Armidale, New South Wales, one in five residents is Aboriginal. The NBN is up and running there, and trials of telehealth programmes that use two-way internet services to monitor patients have already begun. Diabetics were taught how to take readings and upload them, while nurses monitor patients remotely. Another trial offered adult education courses to people at home rather than requiring them to sit in a classroom; Aboriginal school attendance and retention is 10 percentage points lower than for other children, and that gap widens as age increases. The possibilities have only just begun to be explored.

But the right-wing Liberal Party, in the lead-up to the September 2013 election, switched the conversation away from future need and possibility and towards current desires and costs. The incoming communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, framed the internet as a tool for entertainment, not a matter of life and death. The NBN was no longer a crucial infrastructure project: it was an extravagant purchase Australia could ill afford.

Since his party won, Turnbull has fundamentally altered the NBN plan. It will no longer send high-speed fibre to every home and business; instead it will send the fibre to cabinets in each neighbourhood, relying on old, ill-maintained copper networks for the final metres – or miles. Some areas will now experience no difference in service at all. That will affect Australia’s ability to provide health, education and support to its remotest areas and most disadvantaged peoples, and there will no longer be any bandwidth reserved for such applications – unless you can pay for it.

Australia’s grand vision for a national network has shrunk. Even the NBN’s staunchest supporters question the value of minimal speed increases without the security of a universal standard. There has been no talk since the election of telehealth, of education or even of business needs; the conversation now is only about costs and the construction speed of the modified network.

The NBN might have been another Sydney Harbour Bridge: a dazzling feat of design and engineering admired around the world. Instead, its future looks shaky and its eventual usefulness increasingly unclear.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.