Connecting Communities: How did we do?
Coming up for ten years ago now I worked with Huawei Australia on producing the Connecting Communities report that looked at how a country could be transformed by becoming a fully connected nation.
Now, to be clear, when we talked about a connected nation we were not just talking about having broadband access itself – as important as that is.
We were talking about getting to a point where a whole country was online and reaping the benefits of the digital economy, a phrase that we used a lot – and that has been used extensively by others since – was ‘digital inclusion.’
Back in 2011 the NBN was in the very early stages of its then all Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) deployment to 93% of homes and, as we all know now, that plan was changed a couple of years later by the incoming Coalition government to the Multi-Technology-Mix model we have today.
Hard to believe that time has travelled so fast but here we are in 2020 and at the end of next month the NBN will reach the end of its so-called volume rollout and there will be only around 100,000 premises nationwide – representing less than 1% of total NBN premises – that cannot get an NBN service.
Again, I don’t propose to get into the politics of who did what during the NBN wars, but what we can say is that our $51 billion investment has clearly got us better broadband as a country with well over 90% of homes able to get at least a 25Mbps service with the majority able to get 50Mbps.
As a reminder, back in 2011, the only people able to get more than the 24Mbps maximum speeds available on ADSL were the lucky 3 million or so folks on the Telstra/Optus HFC networks that were able to get 100Mbps download speeds – millions of homes could only get ADSL speeds of 3-5Mbps.
Now, to be clear, I understand that there are still a lot of people out there not happy about their NBN connection, there are a substantial number of premises on Fibre-to—the-Node (FTTN) that can’t get 25Mbps and that’s not going to be an easy or quick fix.
On top of that there are ongoing problems on some parts of the NBN Fixed Wireless network with many end-users getting below 6Mbps at peak-time – again, that’s not an easy problem to fix given that consumers are using more and more data in the market.
These are problems that NBN and the Federal Government will need to address with a fair degree of urgency in the coming years to make sure that there is a reasonably level playing field for all Australians in terms of the access they have to broadband connectivity.
There will always be differences in telecommunications availability between the CBD and the bush, everyone understands that, but the critical thing is that those outcomes don’t deny rural and regional Australians the educational and commercial opportunities they deserve.
Now then, we come to what – for me at least – is by far the more interesting part of the equation – what are people doing with all of this connectivity they now have? Has it been worth the investment?
Well, somewhat serendipitously, the COVID-19 challenge to our nation has given the NBN an extremely robust examination in terms of its operational capabilities and it’s fair to say that on balance it has probably exceeded expectations, the vast majority of people have successfully been able to work from home.
That demonstrates the power of the digital infrastructure and digital platforms that we have built up that millions of people have been able to de-camp from their CBD offices to their suburban houses and continue to work with almost no interruption.
That is something that would not have been possible back in 2011 and the economic damage to our country would have been far graver had we not had the ubiquitous broadband network that we now have in place.
So, COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated the power of broadband in that it can help us literally transplant our lives from what we know – the daily commute, getting the lift to the 40th floor, spending hours in meeting rooms – to a completely different way of life.
One of the most interesting parts about what has taken place is the way in which people have, to a large extent, organised their office-to-home digital migrations themselves, it has been an extraordinary example of what we can do when we have that connection to each other.
What we should learn from this is that if we empower communities, and in the case of our response to COVID-19 we are mainly talking about the business community, then we should trust them to deliver the right outcomes.
It’s a cliché now to reference this but before COVID-19 struck there were still plenty of bosses and companies out there that refused to allow their employees to work from home because they thought it would result in their staff slacking off – I think we can put that rather silly argument to bed now once and for all.
So, the question now becomes what next? How do we use this amazing tool of connectivity to empower our communities to have better and more productive lives?
Well, the truth is that communities are already out there using the Internet to completely change the way that they live their lives simply by using tools like social media to connect to like-minded people near them.
That works brilliantly for ground-level community groups for example where information on reliable tradespeople, the best schools, best restaurants and so on can be shared within a trusted group.
As we predicted in Connecting Communities back in 2011 these groups play an increasingly crucial role in helping to combat things like social isolation which can be such a horrible thing to deal with for our seniors and the more vulnerable in our community or, indeed, for those living in remote locations.
Moving forward, if we don’t find a vaccine for COVID-19 then our seniors may have to stay home for the vast majority of the time in order to protect their health so social isolation may become an ever bigger problem – what more can we do to really make sure our seniors are not marginalised?
What about health itself? How much of an advance has Tele-health really made in the last decade? We are still using the same health model we have used for decades and many communities across the country – especially in regional and rural areas – are still in dire need of better healthcare facilities. Could we empower our communities with better digital healthcare?
Education is another key choke-point in the bricks and mortar economy – especially higher education, could we be doing more to allow more educational opportunities at our best institutions, especially for the disadvantaged and those from rural and regional areas?
Right now we are still stuck in the old model of taking the best and brightest kids of out those communities and sending them to the big cities to learn and then, very sadly, they never return home, leaving those communities poorer in more ways than one – why can’t we think about taking the best education possible to those students online so they can use their newly gained knowledge to enrich their communities?
There is no doubt that we are now better connected than we have ever been before, things may not be perfect but we are much better placed than we were back in 2011.
The challenge now is to take the challenge of connecting our communities to the next level and that means re-imagining the way we do things in health, education, commerce and a whole range of other areas.
Australians have shown during COVID-19 that they can transform the way they work overnight when they need to – who knows what else we may be capable of if we are only given the platform?
Dr. Tim Williams is Cities Leader for ARUP Australasia and Chair of Open Cities, in 2011 he worked with Huawei Australia to produce the Connecting Communities report.