Australia’s grand vision for a national broadband network has shrunk

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

South Australian outback. There is very poor network coverage in much of the country. Photo: Getty
South Australian outback. There is very poor network coverage in much of the country. Photo: Getty

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.