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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Scarred lands: visiting the villages Boko Haram left behind reveals the toxic legacy of terrorism

The progress and challenges of Nigerian communities rebuilding after Boko Haram’s insurgency begins to wane.

“Sometimes it’s when I go to bed that what happened comes back to me.” Two years ago, Boko Haram militants stormed into 23-year-old John Amida’s home late at night in a village in Gwoza, Borno State, northeast Nigeria. Shielding his eyes with his hands from the torchlight saved his life. He shows me the mark in the centre of his forearm where the bullet aimed for his head went instead.

“All my friends were either killed or abducted,” he says. “I don’t try to forget what happened because it’s not possible; it’s with you even when it is not in your mind. The best thing is just to keep on living every day.”

After a broadly effective 18-month military campaign, Boko Haram remains a deadly yet waning force. Many communities once occupied by Boko Haram are now liberated. In Adamawa, just south of Borno, over 630,000 people previously displaced by Boko Haram have returned home.

With them, over 170,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) now live in camps, or – like John and his family – in host communities. He and his family live in a home vacated and lent to them by a local. All over Adamawa, IDPs live in homes shared with residents or given to them temporarily in exchange for help, crops or token sums of rent.

Adamawa is a serene, largely rural, mountainous state. Even deep into the dry season, driving through the roads that cut between its vast countryside, its land is incredibly scenic. But within local communities, in more rural, isolated villages north of the state’s capital, Yola, the picture is more complicated.

Gombi, a small town a few hours’ drive from Yola, was recaptured from Boko Haram in late 2014. Much of what was destroyed in the insurgency – shops and small businesses – have been rebuilt or replaced. The local government buildings have been largely restored. The impact is still visible but, according to locals, decreasingly so.

But in less urban areas, like in Garaha, a village in Adamawa, rebuilt homes sit next to broken, abandoned houses, churches, mosques and buildings blackened by the fires that damaged them. Local government officials say the damage across Adamawa by the insurgency has set the state’s development back by a decade. Funding for rebuilding the state, which local governments complain is insufficient, is concentrated on urban areas.

According to Chief Suleimanu, a traditional ruler in Garaha, mental health issues are widespread but few are financially able to access support. While some people have been able to move on, others are still dealing with the consequences.

“Many couples and families have separated,” he tells me, detailing how in some couples one partner feels attached to their home while the other can’t face returning, or feel there is little to return to.

“The same with the children, some of the young people have gone to bigger cities like Kano or Abuja because of a lack of opportunities.”

Many returnees, who left camps in Cameroon to come back to Adamawa, are from families who have lived in their villages for generations. Their ancestral roots anchor them to their homes because their farmland is their main source of income. Non-agriculture-based industries provide few jobs. For many people, fleeing their homes meant abandoning their livelihoods.

As of 2015, 52 per cent of people in Nigeria lived in rural areas. Their relative isolation is a blessing and a curse. Larger rural spaces provide them with adequate land to cultivate their crops – but it also leaves them exposed.

During Boko Haram attacks on Garaha through to early 2015, there was minimal protection from security forces who often take hours to arrive.

For many people living in rural Adamawa, life is getting harder and easier at the same time. Armed herdsmen, mainly from the Fulani ethnicity have become a greater threat across Nigeria, partly due to tensions between land ownership and cattle grazing.

According to locals, killings by herdsmen have increased this year. But villages are addressing their vulnerability. Armed vigilantes, some of which formed due to the lack of military protection against Boko Haram, are increasing. The police services are often too far away or too under-resourced to protect them. But some vigilantes now have more weapons and vehicles due to help from state services and locals. It is not an ideal solution but it has made places like Garaha safer.

With this new-found relative safety, villagers have begun farming again. With cash grants and donated tools from charities like Tearfund, it has been easier for thousands of people to begin cultivating land. In many villages there are small, lively recreation centres where young people play snooker and watch sport. Many of their places of worship have been rebuilt.

But the situation is grimmer in communities where such charities are not present.  Without resources, state or non-government help, rebuilding is a real challenge.

Adamawa is a state maxing on its credit of hospitality, relative safety and appreciation of agriculture. A recession in Nigeria and a severe food crisis in the northeast have added pressures on returnees and IDPs. Liberated communities will need more help and attention before they truly feel free.

Emmanuel Akinwotu is a journalist based between Lagos and London who writes about Africa, migration, and specialises in Nigeria.