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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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain