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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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”