Australia's project for universal broadband access: From policy to social potential
First Monday

Australia's project for universal broadband access: From policy to social potential by Marcos Pereira Dias



Abstract
Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) aims to provide high–speed Internet broadband access to all Australians and transform Australia into one of the world’s top five digital economies by 2020. The NBN’s model of universal and equal access to information flows supported by a nationwide infrastructure network stands out from the dominant scenario of profit–driven, tiered models of communication infrastructure networks. This paper analyses the economic and social value of information as a basic utility in contemporary society and argues that the NBN is an essential component in a nationwide project of digital citizenship, while highlighting the need for strong and effective policies to support it. The policies underlying the NBN and the technical aspects of its infrastructure network are compared with the Coalition’s alternative plan and public and private initiatives from other countries. It is argued that, in order to realise the full potential of the NBN, its future strategies must take into account the current networked practices of Australian citizens and be supported by an equally universal project of digital literacy. Finally, examples of current practices and future benefits of the implementation of high–speed broadband access are presented.

Contents

Introduction
1. The case for universal broadband access
2. Unpacking and examining the NBN
3. Comparing Australia’s NBN with the United States National Broadband Plan (NBP)
4. The NBN and digital citizenship
5. Current practices and future possibilities of high–speed broadband access
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

In our everyday interaction with the Internet, it is all too easy to forget the infrastructure networks that sustain it. The majority of these are privately owned infrastructures, a stark reminder of the underlying politics governing the information flows of the Internet [1]. The fragmented distribution of these networks, where key economic metropolitan regions are prioritised based on profitability, drives a digital divide between countries and within countries themselves. In 2010, 71 percent of the population in developed countries had Internet access, compared with only 21 percent of the population in developing countries and the cost of fixed broadband Internet was on average over six times higher (International Telecommunication Union, 2010). In Australia, “34 percent of people from outer regional and remote areas aged 15 and over did not use the Internet in 2008–09, compared with only 23 percent of people in Australia’s major cities” (Australian Government. Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2011).

This uneven distribution manifests itself through both spatial segregation — exclusion of suburban, remote and rural areas that are less profitable — and technological separation — through tiered systems of service delivery where connection lines are divided into several rates of speed and download cap limits are sold at different prices. This model creates artificial scarcity where premium fast access is reserved to those that are willing or able to pay higher prices, condemning non–profitable areas to lower speed access, high prices and patchy coverage.

Lack of strong governmental policies contributes to perpetuating this cycle, deepening the digital divide. However, the intervention of national governments in the communication sector through policy and infrastructure provision has been stigmatised as both an obstruction of freedom of access to the Internet and a waste of public resources. Since the 1970s, as Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin point out: “neoliberal critiques of the ‘inefficiencies’ of centralised public control and ownership have fuelled a widespread wave of infrastructural liberalisation and privatisation” where private infrastructure networks specifically seek areas with “maximum infrastructure capabilities, lowest costs, and maximum flexibility and mobility potential.” [2]

Sassen identifies three key power holders in the “de facto management of the Internet”: governmental control through technical and operating standards, the increasingly powerful large Internet–based private corporations and central authorities that enforce the general standards needed to keep the Internet accessible (such as regulation of Internet addresses) [3]. Large Internet–based private corporations such as Google, Facebook and Amazon are increasingly coordinating and controlling the information flows of the Internet, and moving towards acquiring and building the infrastructure networks to support their business models [4].

Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) project, through a combination of major governmental investment in infrastructure supproted by strong Government policies, aims to connect all Australian households and businesses to a high–speed broadband network. It is a vital component of Australia’s National Digital Economy Strategy and its aim of transforming Australia into one of the world’s top five digital economies by 2020 [5].

Launched in April 2009, the NBN project aims to deliver a minimum download speed of 12 megabits per second (Mbp/s) with a standard entry level price. Ninety–three percent of the population will be served by a nation–wide fibre optic network, while the remaining seven percent will be served by wireless and satellite access [6]. It is estimated that 70 percent of premises in regional Australia will have access to the faster, wired fibre optic service [7]. The NBN is expected to be completed by 2015 at an estimate total capital expenditure (revised in 2011) of over A$35 billion (Australian dollars) [8].

Much of the criticism directed at the NBN argues that it does not fit in with the current economic model of project–based, profit–driven, privatised infrastructure networks, and that it is reminiscent of authoritarian, large state–sponsored projects of bygone eras. However, the Australian government’s public investment in the NBN — estimated at A$27.1 billion out of the total NBN investment of A$35 billion — is expected to be repaid by the role of the NBN as a wholesale provider of services to private communication providers, who will in turn provide communication services for the end user [9].

This paper analyses the case for universal broadband access and the economic and social value of information as a basic utility in contemporary society. It argues that the NBN’s infrastructure investment and policies are essential components in a nationwide project of digital citizenship. It compares the technical details of the proposed infrastructure network of the NBN against alternative national strategies and current examples from other countries. This paper argues that in order to maximise its future potential the NBN must take into account the current networked practices of Australian citizens, promote awareness of its long–term benefits and be supported by an equally universal project of digital literacy.

 

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1. The case for universal broadband access

In The rise of the network society, Manuel Castells argues that in our contemporary condition of the networked society, information is the main ‘raw’ material. However, he emphasises that information must be acted upon by technologies in order to extract its benefits [10]. For broadband access — as the de facto place of convergence of information flows in contemporary society — to be consolidated as a basic utility, equal access to its infrastructure networks must be provided. There are three significant issues that need to be considered: first, does equal and universal access to information emerge naturally through market expansion? Second, how can we measure the value of the information flows of high–speed broadband access? Finally, what is the role of policy–making in ensuring the role of information as a basic right of citizens?

The private versus public investment debate

In the debate concerning private and public investment in infrastructure networks, Dominique Lorrain argues that information moves towards the utility spectrum once its networks can reach ‘club effect’. He uses the example of the cellular telephone industry in the 1990s to illustrate his argument. According to him, “the greater the number of customers, the smaller the share of sunk and other fixed costs”, leading to the expansion of the network rather than generating a focus on providers to extract extra value from niche users [11]. Lorrain rejects the assertion that the historical construction of urban networks is guided by a inherent process of segregation of ‘low value’ customers, arguing that discrimination can only emerge if the network is still in its infancy and therefore organised under a dual regime of utility and commodity [12].

The ‘club effect’ hypothesis doesn’t seem to apply to Australia and its vast territorial size. While the three major private mobile network carriers in Australia all claim to have over 94 percent coverage of the Australian population, only “around 25 percent of the Australian landmass” is actually covered, resulting in patchy coverage and poor signal for many remote and rural Australian citizens. A recent report from the Australian Government also highlights that there are issues with the accuracy of the coverage maps of the major carriers, stating that they “often include areas where a mobile device requires an external antenna to receive coverage” [13].

The same report states that the cost of deploying, operating and maintaining new base station towers (approximately A$350,000 to 500,000 per site) to cater for remote and rural areas is not profitable, and therefore “mobile carriers have no incentive to provide this vital service”. The report highlights the importance of mobile phone services in remote and rural areas, such as for access to emergency services during bushfires and for contractors to conduct business and recruit staff, and availability of such services even impacts on land value [14]. In this scenario, what interest do private Internet providers have, other than conforming with government policies, in providing high–speed broadband access to these communities.

Measuring the value of information flows

What is an adequate level of broadband service to cater for the current and future needs of the Australian population? Current statistics of Internet consumption point towards exponential increases in demand driven by traffic–heavy services such as online video, predicted to account for over 50 percent of worldwide consumer Internet traffic by 2012. According to Cisco Systems, “because video is gaining traffic share [...] busy–hour Internet traffic will nearly quintuple between 2011 and 2016, while average Internet traffic will nearly quadruple” [15]. The rapid adoption of ‘cloud computing’ will also accelerate this growth [16]. Between June 2009 and June 2010, the estimated volume of data downloaded by Australian Internet users increased by 50 percent (to 155,000 terabytes). The majority of content (91 percent) was downloaded via fixed–line networks [17].

While the statistics surrounding Internet consumption highlight the need to cater for future predicted demands, an historical analysis of the importance of communication flows illustrates the advantages of building infrastructure networks to cater for both envisioned future services and unpredictable uses.

The innovative potential of high–speed communication networks was heralded by the advent of the telegraph in the second half of the nineteenth century. As an early forerunner of the Internet (transmitting information at the speed of light in a binary format), it triggered economic and social benefits, such as: the synchronisation of different railway timetables, more efficient delivery of updated news, and the coordination of economic regions through the standardisation of time zones. As James Carey argues, the telegraph also “invented the future as a new zone of uncertainty, as it enabled speculation through the manipulation of time” through financial market devices, demonstrating a century before the arrival of the Internet the importance of information flows transmitted at the speed of light [18].

However, how can we precisely measure the social benefits of the NBN? A report by Ofcom in 2008 on the value of next generation broadband deployment in the United Kingdom highlights that it is impossible to predict what kind of services might arise once newer and more efficient communication technologies become available. However, once these technologies are in place, they create a snowball effect of innovation:

“We should remember the experience of current generation broadband. It should be recalled that initially subscribers to broadband used it for just the same services — typically e–mail and Web browsing — that they used when they simply had narrowband. The age of sites such as You Tube and flickr (sic) had not arrived; still less on–demand television services like the BBC’s iPlayer and IPTV. The use of such sites and services is now growing at a very rapid rate and consumers will demand faster download speeds and better quality — all of which will require greater bandwidth.” [19]

Ofcom’s report highlights the fact that users need to be informed of the new services that they can benefit from, once higher speed Internet connections become available. However, once these are understood, they are quickly adopted and fuel an exponential rise in Internet traffic, as was the case with online video, which has applications far beyond its entertainment value in areas such as tele–health, tele–working and online video conferencing.

In a similar report from 2011 with a focus on the NBN, Richard Hayes arrives at similar conclusions to those in the Ofcom report:

“Creating in advance the exact experience of a future world under the NBN is impossible. Some applications are demonstrable, such as high definition videoconferencing, IPTV and cloud computing and backups. But many other future applications may be possible, future applications that may not be realised until a critical mass of very fast broadband users exists.” [20]

Hayes concludes that it is impossible to estimate the social cost–benefit of the NBN analytically when we cannot judge precisely the value that might come “from the future services and applications for very fast broadband”. This, Hayes emphasises, has been demonstrated by the “unanticipated value that accompanied the historical moves to basic broadband and fast broadband” [21].

While it is difficult to predict the exact economic value of the implementation of the NBN, a report by the World Bank on the impact of broadband and other information and communication technologies (ICT) on growth in 120 countries between 1980 and 2006 is a good indicator of its economic potential. The analysis showed that an extra 10 percent of broadband penetration accounted for a 1.21 percent increase in GDP growth per capita in developed economies, which is significant when compared to the overall growth rate of 2.1 percent during this period [22]. A report by Nesta on the impact of the provision of universal super–fast broadband in the United Kingdom estimates that it “could directly create 600,000 new jobs, with £18 billion (pound sterling) added to GDP” [23].

Implementing digital citizenship at policy level

How can effective policy–making support the role of information as a basic utility and a fundamental right of citizens, rather than simply focussing on its economic potential? Countries across the world are implementing clear policies that acknowledge and embrace the value of the Internet in empowering citizenship. Estonia, Finland and Spain have “declared access to the Internet as a legal right for citizens”. Brazil’s electronic government policy highlights the promotion of citizenship rather than simply focussing on its economic benefits. It states that digital inclusion should not be “merely a resource to increase the number of users [or] of creation of new customers for new types or channels of distribution of goods and services” (International Telecommunication Union, 2010; Brasil. Programa de Governo Eletrônico Brasileiro, 2012; my translation). The Brazilian government has conducted a series of projects under the theme ‘digital inclusion’, providing free communication centres with broadband access for citizens and the project “Computers for All”, aiming to provide financial and technical assistance to facilitate the acquisition of computers with Internet access by all citizens (Projeto Computadores Para Todos, 2012; Brasil. Ministério das Telecomunicações, 2012).

South Korea, ranked fourth in the world in the number of broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants, has developed policies that balance the financial and social advantages of ultra–fast broadband access through a strategy of “building a smart environment”. This includes the construction of a Giga Internet pilot network (with speeds of up to one Gbp/s, or over 1,000 Mbp/s) while promoting access to isolated rural areas through the construction of 100 Mbp/s broadband networks in rural areas with less than 50 households. While the Korean Communication Commission’s 2010 Annual report boasted of their financial achievements, it also mentioned among their targets the lowering of telecommunications tariffs for households, increasing digital literacy and broadcasting access to disadvantaged segments of society (Korean Communication Commission, 2011).

All the above countries acknowledge the importance of digital literacy towards unlocking the potential of information as a basic utility. While access to water, electricity and sewage services are taken for granted as basic utilities, understanding the value and benefits of digital information flows involves “the ability to access, understand and participate or create content using digital media”. It also involves acknowledging the emerging role of consumers as “digital citizens [who] require access to digital media literacies as much as technical infrastructure.” [24]

 

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2. Unpacking and examining the NBN

An overview of the technical background to the NBN

The NBN’s main infrastructure network will consist of a fibre optic network based on the fibre–to–the–premises standard (FTTP, sometimes also referred to as FTTH or fibre–to–the–home) that connects the fibre optic directly to each household. The competing fibre optic standard, fibre–to–the–node or FTTN, involves bringing the fibre optic network up to a main exchange node that is shared by several households by using cables with less bandwidth capacity to connect the node to the household. These cables are usually copper cables or hybrid–fibre coaxial cables. While FTTN can theoretically deliver up to 100 Mbp/s, this can only happen in ideal conditions. The FTTP infrastructure proposed by the NBN will deliver 100Mbp/s and be readily upgradeable to one Gbp/s (equivalent to over 1,000 Mbp/s) and even 10 Gbp/s (equivalent to over 10,000 Mbp/s) (Ayre, et al., 2010; Tucker, 2010). [25] Therefore, NBN’s decision to employ a FTTP fibre optic infrastructure aims to cater for the predicted exponential increase in data consumption and avoid redundancy and costly replacement of infrastructure in the near future.

Fibre optics networks have a much higher transmission rate than wireless networks or networks based on copper cables and hybrid–fibre coaxial cables (the most common form of cables employed in wired networks). Fibre optics cables are capable of carrying hundreds of different channels of information at high speed by assigning each a different light wavelength. In 2009, scientists at Bell Labs demonstrated the ability of a fiber optic cable to carry the equivalent of 400 DVDs per second over a distance of 7,000 kilometres (Alcatel–Lucent, 2009). Fibre optic cables also allow symmetry between downloading and uploading speeds of information. This is an important factor in avoiding latency in services such as video telephony, online gaming and online medical consultations. Wireless access and non–fibre optic fixed broadband networks tend towards assymmetrical speeds, with much lower speeds of upload when compared to download speeds. Fibre optics networks are also less susceptible to interference and wiretapping as they are insensitive to electromagnetic interference.

The NBN infrastructure networks aims to deliver “a high–speed fibre network providing broadband speeds of up to 100 Mbp/s to 93 percent of the population through FTTP, with capability to provide future speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbp/s)”, or more than 1,000 Mbp/s. The remaining seven percent of the population in remote locations will be served by “next–generation wireless and satellite technology providing peak speeds of at least 12 Mbp/s.” [26]

The NBN and its discontents

The NBN has generated a chasm between the Australian Government (currently controlled by the Labor party) and the opposition (the Liberal/National Coalition). While the Government aims to provide egalitarian, universal broadband access and a “future–proof” infrastructure network through the NBN project, the Coalition — currently led by Tony Abbott — has argued that it is a waste of public money and that it could be done through a combination of different networking technologies and existing infrastructure. Abbott argues that the NBN is “not necessary at a time when Australia’s road, railways and ports are completely clogged” (The Age, 2011). Abbott’s declaration reduces the discussion surrounding the NBN to economic issues, suggesting that the NBN is in direct competition with public investment in transportation infrastructure. Arguably, the NBN could in fact relieve the pressure on transport infrastructure. It is estimated that “the value of a 10 per cent increase in Australian employees that telework 50 per cent of the time [...] would reduce traffic at peak periods by five per cent.” [27]

The Coalition’s initial alternative plan for the NBN envisioned an alternative mix of technologies including the upgrading of existing copper networks and additional wireless networks that would deliver a 12 Mbp/s peak speed at a cost of six billion Australian dollars (Moses, 2010). While wireless can be a good substitute for fixed Internet access in rural areas, in urban areas it is prone to interference, and the number of transmitting base stations needed would become economically and technically unviable as data consumption increases (Tucker, et al., 2011). Wireless access also consumes four times more energy than fibre optic networks for a similar speed of transmission (Tucker, 2010).

More recently, the Coalition changed their approach, proposing the use of FTTN as an alternative to NBN’s mainly FTTP policy. The Coalition argues that their alternative strategy will involve “bringing fibre further into the field so the copper loop is short enough to support very fast broadband”. However, as mentioned above, FTTN can deliver up to 100 Mbp/s only in an ideal scenario where the exchange node is very close to the household. The exponential rise in data consumption and the issue of latency in symmetrical communications (such as online video conferencing) would eventually deem the “copper loop” approach to the connection between the nodes and households redundant (Turnbull, 2012).

The Coalition’s plan has been subject to the scrutiny of the private sector. A Citigroup report estimated the Coalition’s updated plan would cost A$16.7 billion and could be completed by the end of 2018. However, the report expressed concern that the private sector would “continue to limit broadband development in regional areas”, as the Coalition plan stipulates that regional areas would depend on Government subsidies due to their lower value to service providers. This would, according to Taylor, “return the industry to tiered fixed–broadband pricing between regional areas and metropolitan areas of Australia, with companies favouring metro infrastructure roll–outs over regional roll–outs in order to make a return on investment” (Taylor, 2011) [28].

The heated political debate surrounding the NBN has focused on financial figures, with misinformed technical assumptions and political lobbies misguiding citizens [29]. This has overshadowed the important discussion of how to best integrate the current and future networked practices of citizens and the need to increase digital literacy with the ongoing implementation of the NBN infrastructure. While the Government’s National Digital Economy Strategy mentions improvements in citizen’s education, health, work and access to Government services, it is important to both understand what the end users — Australian citizens — expect from the NBN, and inform them how they can effectively benefit from it. Firstly, it is worth comparing the Australian Government’s broadband strategies with those in the United States, as they are similar countries in territorial size and economic standards, while also analysing the recent move from Google to become the provider of a city–wide fiber optic network through its Google Fiber initiative.

 

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3. Comparing Australia’s NBN with the United States National Broadband Plan (NBP)

In the 2011 world broadband rankings, the United States ranked fifteenth in the number of broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants, while Australia ranked twenty–first (OECD, 2011). The United States Government promotes the adoption of broadband with a view to achieving similar objectives to Australia’s NBN, however both countries differ significantly in their approach towards policy and infrastructure strategy.

An overview of the United States National Broadband Plan (NBP)

America’s National Broadband Plan (NBP), published in March 2010 (nearly a year after Australia’s NBN), highlights similar benefits to those mentioned in Australia’s NBN: health, education, teleworking, economic opportunities, and access to government services. Its goals for the year 2020 include providing: “affordable access to download speeds of at least 100 MBps and upload speeds of at least 50 MBps to at least 100 million U.S. homes”; “affordable access to robust broadband service and the means and skills to subscribe” to every American; and, “affordable access to service of at least 1 gigabit per second (Gbp/s) to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings” in every American community. The plan “sets out a strategic vision [by] establishing national goals regarding broadband and recommending specific policies to achieve those goals”. To implement its recommendations, it acknowledges the need to develop a Broadband Strategy Council at Government level for policy development and implementation, citing examples from South Korea, Japan and the United Kingdom [30].

The United States Government developed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), allocating $7.2 billion (U.S. dollars) — roughly the equivalent of one fifth of the total investment of the NBN — to expand broadband access and adoption in communities across the country. These funds were allocated via two specific programs: approximately $2.5 billion to the BIP (Broadband Initiatives Program) for investment in broadband infrastructure projects in rural areas, and $4.7 billion to the BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunities Program) to “fund comprehensive broadband infrastructure projects, public computer centers and sustainable broadband adoption projects” (Broadband USA, 2011).

While most of the BTOP investment went towards infrastructure projects ($3.5 billion), smaller shares of the fund went towards public computer centre projects ($201 million) and sustainable broadband adoption projects ($251 million) that aim to improve digital literacy and access. The latter amounts to 3.4 percent of the total ARRA investment. In contrast, the Australian NBN’s Digital Communities Initiative — a A$23 million investment over three years that aims to provide training in digital skills for local residents in the first 40 communities that will benefit from NBN access — amounts to the equivalent of less than 0.1 percent of the total estimated cost of the NBN [31].

Despite this, it is unclear if the ARRA investment policy is enough to secure the ambitious goals stated in the United States’ NBP plan in terms of infrastructure network targets, as most of the plan’s proposals are recommendations rather than specific policies, most of the infrastructure is being directly developed by private companies and the differences in legislation across different American states and even between different governmental agencies complicate the process.

Google Fiber

In the context of the United States’ NBP, it is worth discussing Google Fiber, a recent fibre optic network intitiative by Internet–based company Google targetting key metropolitan areas of the United States. Google Fiber has been kickstarted by the Google Kansas initiative, an ultra–fast city broadband network being deployed across Kansas City in the states of Kansas (KS) and Missouri (MO) that has been enthusiastically supported by the city councils [32].

There are some interesting points to consider in Google’s Kansas City initiative. It is using FTTP (fibre–to–the–premises) technology to provide symmetrical speeds of up to one Gbp/s, ten times the initial predicted speed of the fibre optics network employed by the Australian NBN. In its Fiber Blog (Google, 2012a), Google records its commissioning of a study on broadband adoption and digital literacy in partnership with the local councils. The study illustrated a digital divide driven by differences in speed of connection and ability to afford Internet access. Of the 17 percent of Kansas citizens that didn’t go online at all, “41% of respondents said they don’t go online because they just don’t think it’s relevant to their lives” (Google, 2011; Google, 2012a).

Google states an interest in tackling digital inclusion, and in the blog it lists areas where it thinks “Google Fiber can make a difference”. The list has many similarities to Australia’s National Digital Economy Strategy. It includes high–speed broadband for schools, tele–health pilots, teleconferencing, and supporting businesses by creating a test–bed for developing new applications. Google encourages the involvement of the local community through an online forum where residents can submit their ideas and find out about project updates (Google, 2012a; Google, 2012b).

Of course, Google also has clear financial interests in the project. These were revealed recently when details of the pricing and roll–out conditions became available. Two out of the three packages developed by the Google Fiber model are devoted to premium access: $70 per month for Gigabit Internet access, and $120 per month for Internet plus TV channels. For those who can’t afford that price tag or don’t want to pay for it, Google is offering a free plan, although this involves a construction fee of $300 per month (payable over a year) towards the cost of Google pre–installing the infrastructure. The free plan is subject to a download speed of five Mbps/s (that is 200 times slower than the Gigabit premium packages) and an upload speed of one Mbps/s (Google, 2012c). Although fibre optics networks are capable of very fast, symmetrical and easily upgradeable connection speeds, Google’s free plan limits users to a fraction of the maximum speed of their network and to an asymmetrical connection, where uploads are five times slower. The download speed and upload speeds of Google Fiber’s basic plan are also significantly slower than America’s NBP goal of providing: “actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second” to at least 100 million U.S. homes by 2020 [33].

Google has also attached conditions to the roll–out of the fibre optic infrastructure network. It is asking households to pre–register their interest through the payment of a $10 fee. Each neighbourhood has to reach a target number of pre–registrations in 45 days to guarantee Google Fiber service. The Google Fiber Web site contains a promotional video which states that Google want “to build fibre where people are most excited about it” (Google, 2012c). Despite this, it is unlikely that rural, remote and low density areas in the United States will ever be targeted by Google Fiber due to their unprofitability. While Google asserts its interest in supporting digital inclusion, its roll–out is specifically tied to the amount of potential customers in a specific neighbourhood.

While Google Fiber contributes towards increasing the number of broadband users in key metropolitan areas of the United States and providing these users with access to the myriad advantages of fibre optic infrastructure networks, it is still a tier–based model of access to communication networks based on artificial scarcity. Despite Google Fiber’s potential to provide equal access to all users, its network access is divided into different tiers of speed and symmetry, creating different packages where premium access is reserved for those who can (or are willing to) pay more.

 

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4. The NBN and digital citizenship

The NBN and digital literacy

The Australian Government defines digital literacy as “the technical skills required by modern digital technologies”. It states that a digitally literate person should be able to “have basic capacity and competence to get connected, to operate and access various digital technologies and services [and] exercise informed choices in online and digital media and communications environments” (Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2009). As Bell points out, digital literacy is “a life–long process” that involves “teaching basic skills but also critical thinking” across schools, universities and other social institutions [34].

Despite the importance of digital literacy, a recent report states that information and communication technologies (ICT) skills in schools are still understood as general capabilities complementing other disciplines rather than constituting “its own learning area” (Australian Council for Computers in Education, 2011). The 2011–12 Regional Telecommunications Review by the Australian Government uncovered the deepening of the digital divide in communities in remote areas, stating that “digital literacy challenges are exacerbated for people with low levels of English literacy [such as] Indigenous Australians living in many remote communities and migrants from non–English speaking countries”. The report pointed out that availability of high–speed broadband in student’s households can benefit them through “seamless access to online reference material” and can also benefit teachers through “better access to professional development options, continuation of their learning and an improved ability to develop support networks with both metropolitan and regionally–based teachers” [35].

In May 2012 the Australian Government announced a A$27.2 million investment in the NBN–Enabled Education and Skills Services (NBN–EESS) to “support the development of online and interactive education and training projects [...] to demonstrate the benefits of high–speed broadband connectivity to be provided in and across the NBN first–release site areas” (Australian Government. Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2012). Incorporating these information resources and learning tools as individual learning areas into all Australian school’s ICT skills classes — regardless of their location — would be an important step to match the universal reach of the NBN infrastructure network [36].

Libraries are also important institutions for the promotion of digital literacy and Internet access. A recent survey of Internet access in Australian public libraries found that there was an increase of 26 percent in the number of public access terminals available compared with an increase in the size of population of four percent, which shows a significant growth in demand for Interent access in public libraries. However, 85 percent of the libraries surveyed did not provide Internet training for adults and children and 89 percent didn’t consult the community about their Internet policies. Only 39 percent of the libraries surveyed had a broadband connection, and of those, one–third had a connection speed of less than two Mbp/s and more than half were below eight Mbp/s [37].

The importance of regional Australia

In the quest to expand digital literacy, regional Australia is an important player. It accounts for one–third of the Australian population, is the economic backbone of the country by virtue of its mineral and agricultural exports and accounts for 93 percent of all the country’s food production. While historically regional Australia has provided the biggest challenges for the implementation of telecommunication services due to its small population spread across great distances, it also provides some of the greatest opportunities for innovative applications of high–speed broadband access [38].

The 2011–12 Regional Telecommunications Review recommended the further expansion of the Digital Hubs program (part of the Digital Communities Initiative) into regional areas that are not part of the 40 targeted early–site NBN communities. The review suggested the involvement of “not–for–profit organisations such as those in the age cared sector”. It mentions as an example the Australian Government’s Broadband for Seniors initiative, established to improve the digital literacy of older people. This initiative has received A$15 million to “provide older Australians with free access to computers and the internet, as well as training in information technology skills” [39].

The NBN policies have been directed towards prioritising the deployment of fibre optics infrastructure and the introduction of fixed wireless and satellite services in regional Australia. Since November 2011, the NBN has been offering its Interim Satellite Service (ISS) with a download speed of six Mbp/s and upload speed of one Mbp/s in remote and rural areas to about 1,000 eligible customers per month. The 2011–12 Regional Telecommunications Review recommended that this service be extended to remote public institutions such as schools, health facilities and also Indigenous communities, who are not currently eligible. The review argues that it is essential for the NBN to gather local community input and advice through community reference groups to improve the efficiency of the NBN roll–out [40].

Balancing future and current networked practices

Genevieve Bell’s comprehensive empirical study conducted in South Australia in 2009 provided an important snapshot of the diverse networked practices of Australian citizens. She visited 45 communities across South Australia, from dense urban areas to isolated rural communities, and uncovered many insights into how people actually use information technologies in their everyday lives: citizens in remote areas banking via their mobile phones, a 95 year–old video game player, teenagers sending 300 text messages a day, and a dad whose Internet access routine was to ring his daughter and ask her to ‘Google’ information for him. Bell exposed the importance of maintenance support, describing how one single person (Rick) was responsible for “servicing the technology in more than 50 schools north of Port Augusta” and how available computer equipment could not be used because they were “waiting for Rick”. She also pointed out that while “the kids of South Australia are frequently heavy users of technology [...] schools are often the least technology–enabled spaces they move through” [41].

Bell’s report reinforced the importance of a project of digital citizenship that depends not only on infrastructure networks, but also on social institutions that can provide training, mentors, maintenance personnel, easier models of Government–citizen engagement and the provision of training and equipment to public servants.

 

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5. Current practices and future possibilities of high–speed broadband access

High–speed broadband access provides multiple possibilities to enhance citizen’s lives, facilitating access to government services at local and national level, cutting costs in transport infrastructure and business administration, and even enabling new forms of social interaction through art initiatives. The following section discusses examples of successful initiatives that benefit from high–speed broadband access in the areas of health, aged care, education, politics, teleworking, and arts providing statistical data to support them.

Health

In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service (NHS) has provided tens of thousands of its patients with remote tele-medical health treatment and monitoring. In Scotland alone this has accounted for savings of 70,000 bed–days. Specialist tele–health programs, such as the Scottish tele–stroke network and the ENT tele–endoscopy in the north of Scotland, have reduced waiting lists, travelling needs between remote areas and specialist clinics for both patients and consultants and have achieved big savings in hospital stay costs. This has been acknowledged by the Scottish Parliament, in particular the benefits of tele–health services connecting the remote Orkney islands to the consulting site at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, which allow suspect stroke patients access to a consultation with a stroke physician. This saves patients a 14 hour round trip, which is particularly important for stroke cases as the first 24 hours are critical [42].

In regional Australia, where “vast distances, low population density and high cost of providing healthcare [...] pose significant challenges”, tele–health technologies can make an even bigger impact. Reports by Access Economics have calculated that the introduction of tele–health enabled by high–speed broadband in regional areas can produce a 149 percent return on investment over two years when quality of life benefits from reduced suffering and pain are factored in. These reports have also estimated the “benefits to Australia from wide scale implementation of tele–health [to be] in the vicinity of $2 billion to $4 billion dollars per annum”. The Australian Government aims to deliver 495,000 specialist tele–health consultations to people in rural, remote and outer metropolitan areas by July 2015. To achieve this, access to high–speed broadband connections has to be coupled with digital literacy skills among patients and practitioners as well as integration of different proprietary videoconferencing systems [43].

Aged care

An area where the NBN can make a significant impact is in providing home–based aged care. In the United Kingdom, 1.7 million people avail of broadband tele–care, allowing them to live independently rather than having to use hospitals or sheltered residential accommodation. Remote devices record their medical condition and transmit the information via broadband to professional carers and medical staff [44].

The Australian Government spending on aged care is predicted to double in the next 40 years as the life expectancy of the population increases [45]. High–speed broadband access can lessen these costs by allowing elderly people to be more independent and monitored remotely, while also providing them with enhanced entertainment options and allowing them to connect via video conferencing to relatives and friends [46].

Education

In the United Kingdom, “research has shown that pupils with online access at home attained a two–grade hike in their subject at GCSE; some of the best results have been obtained with children and parents previously unengaged in education” [47]. The NBN is trialling a tele–education project in Armidale in partnership with the New South Wales TAFE — New England Institute and University of New England to deliver high–definition, Internet protocol–delivered television, video on demand, three–dimensional trade skill packages and open access courseware to classrooms. The trial hopes to identify benefits such as “improved access to high quality vocational and adult education and training for students at home and in the workplace [and] improved usage of existing teaching resources that will help to address teacher shortages” (Australian Government. Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. National Boradband Network (NBN), 2012; Australian Government. Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2012).

The 2011–12 Regional Telecommunications Review points out that “digital literacy challenges are exacerbated for people with low levels of English literacy [such as] Indigenous Australians living in many remote communities and migrants from non–English speaking countries”. The Council on the Ageing states that “90% of seniors are reasonably keen to learn the new technology, but are hesitant to try anything by themselves ... and for those who are prepared to use the internet (sic) ... it’s a big step, like learning a new language” [48]. It is important that the Australian Government digital literacy projects target these groups towards achieving universal digital inclusion.

Politics

Broadband access can provide benefits to constituents through easier, quicker and more effective access to politicians, and to governments by reducing the cost of services and allowing a more open and dynamic dialogue with citizens. Citywide initiatives increase the benefits further. In the United Kingdom, Birmingham council has used social media and open data policies to interact with citizens. It created an award–winning online “‘Civic dashboard’, a web tool which shares the information held on its contact database with all its online citizens [that] prompts interactivity between the council and residents on what needs to be done and what was done” [49]. A report for the U.K. Government found that “face-to-face transactions cost £10.53, the cost of a telephone engagement was £3.39 and engagement with the government by mail cost £12.10 compared with the cost of an online transaction cost at just £0.08” [50].

Australia can reap such benefits even more due to its vast territorial size. Increasing access to high–speed broadband will cut costs and allow content–rich services to reach remote areas, however, in providing such services the Australian Government needs “to recognise that there are varying levels of digital literacy and confidence amongst their user target groups”, especially in rural and remote areas [51].

Teleworking

The Australian Government estimates that “the value of a 10 per cent increase in Australian employees that telework 50 per cent of the time is between $1.4 billion and $1.9 billion a year”. It “would save an estimated 120 million litres of fuel, avoiding 320 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (equivalent to $6 million worth of emissions) and would reduce traffic at peak periods by five per cent, resulting in a reduction of $470 million in congestion costs”, reducing the strain on transportation infrastructure networks [52].

Teleworking also facilitates the flexible relocation of businesses and workers to regional areas, and allows companies to access a larger pool of potential employees. Unity4, one of Australia’s largest teleworking organisations, has over 300 staff working from home, achieving savings of 220 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per annum due to the reduced needs of staff to commute [53].

Art

High-speed universal broadband access can facilitate new social experiences through participatory art projects that integrate the Internet into physical spaces and link remote areas in real time. An example of participatory art that relies on high–speed broadband access is BBC’s Big Screens project. The project’s infrastructure consists of digital video displays with an average size of 25 square metres spread across several cities in the United Kingdom and linked via high–speed broadband access. The screens serve as testbeds for broadcasting, interactive art and local community projects. For strategic and cost reasons, the project deployed a customised network operation centre that enabled the interface and content to be remotely controlled via a high–speed Internet connection. Like the NBN, the BBC Big Screens is a significant infrastructure project that was implemented ahead of its future use. The screens were initially installed as platforms without a fixed program of activities, and, through consultations with the host cities, different uses and activities were implemented and assembled into local programs that guided the use of the screens on a daily basis [54].

The NBN has the potential to link participatory art projects worldwide directly to individual Australian households in real–time by minimising latency and by providing a symmetrical upload/download connection. I’d Hide You, a project developed in 2012 by United Kingdom artist collective Blast Theory, demonstrated such possibility through an innovative use of Internet live broadcasting. I’d Hide You adopted the format of a live game played on the streets of Manchester, where players competed against each other by trying to capture their opponents on camera without getting filmed themselves (Blast Theory, 2012). In the meantime, anyone with fast Internet access could take part remotely, engaging with participants in the streets by sending comments to them while following their video streams as they moved through the city. Without high–speed broadband access, such a project wouldn’t be viable, as delays in the transmission of video would hinder the participant’s experience.

Blast Theory’s I’d Hide You points to the possibilities of moving from expensive mass media broadcasting models towards collaborative and participatory Internet media broadcasting. Ultimately, the convergence of high–speed universal broadband access with a project of digital inclusion can open up opportunities for the general public to invent their own networked social initiatives outside of the conventional art/research circuits of museums, galleries and curated spaces. This will depend on incentives being provided by government or independent institutions to trigger collaborative inititatives between citizens and artists.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

The importance of information as a basic utility in contemporary society is increasingly being acknowledged by countries across the world through the promotion of Internet access as a basic citizen’s right. Historical trends in the development of innovative communication infrastructure networks have proven that there are major economic and social benefits associated with the early deployment of such networks ahead of other countries. Australia’s NBN project for universal broadband is one of digital inclusion that acknowledges the economic and social potential of information flows.

However, the focus on NBN’s infrastructure network undertaking and the heated political debates surrounding it have overshadowed the importance of the goal of digital inclusion.

Information can only be understood and utilised efficiently by digitally–literate citizens. For this reason, unlike basic utilities such as water and electricity, the NBN does not benefit from a general appreciation of its inherent value. Its potential needs to be highlighted in the arguments against alternative approaches that would be susceptible to future redundancy and continue to support uneven distribution, access and pricing.

In order to justify its significant financial investment in providing a universal infrastructure network, the Government must promote awareness of the long–term benefits, support innovation and implement an equally universal project of digital literacy. While the NBN is materialising through implementation of Government policies and development of infrastructure, it must ultimately become a participatory citizen–driven project, with all Australians involved in its implementation and able to reap its benefits. End of article

 

About the author

Marcos Pereira Dias is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. His current research investigates emerging forms of social interaction and the participant’s experience in digital performances in mediated public spaces.
E–mail: m [dot] dias [at] student [dot] unimelb [dot] edu [dot] au

 

Acknowledgements

The author would like to acknowledge the support of the Institute for a Broadband–Enabled Society (IBES), University of Melbourne in his research.

 

Notes

1. The impressive statistics of the Supernaps (owned by the Switch Communications Group), advertised as “the world’s largest and most powerful data center and technology ecosystem” (http://switchnap.com/pages/all-things-switch/the-supernaps.php) are just one example of the Internet’s dependence on privately owned infrastructures. Supernaps is located near Las Vegas and has a footprint of over two million square feet (the equivalent of 40 football fields). For an overview of the private ownership of the Internet’s submarine cables, see http://www.submarinecablemap.com/.

2. Graham and Marvin, 2001, pp. 91, 100.

3. Sassen, 2006, p. 331.

4. See for example, Google’s investment in submarine cables: http://gigaom.com/2009/12/11/googles-underwater-ambitions-expand/ and also Google Fiber, its project to build city-wide fibre optic networks: https://fiber.google.com/about/.

5. Australian Government. Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2011, p. 2.

6. Australian Government, 2011, p. 1.

7. Australian Government, 2012, p. 65.

8. Australian Government, 2011, p. 5.

9. NBNCo, 2012, p. 3.

10. Castells, 1996, p. 61.

11. Lorrain, in Coutard, et al., 2005, p. 25.

12. Lorrain, in Coutard, et al., 2005, p. 26–29.

13. Australian Government, 2012, pp. 39, 40.

14. Australian Government, 2012, p. 41–44.

15. Cisco Systems, 2011, pp. 2, 6.

16. Cloud computing is a term used to designate the move towards transferring services, storage of data and applications previously stored locally in user’s computers to remote locations accessible over a network. The benefits of this process are flexible access, effective usage of computational power and storage space, and most importantly, the flexibility to let private groups share access services, data and applications from different locations. The main barrier to cloud computing is the need for a provision of fast and reliable network access. Cloud computing is one of the main services that can benefit from high–speed, universal access networks such as the NBN’s proposed infrastructure.

17. Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2010, pp. 7, 31, 32.

18. Carey, 2009, p. 168.

In the late nineteenth century the New York Stock Exchange created an artificial advantage by stipulating that “price information had to be relayed by messenger to an area off the floor of the exchange that had been set aside for telephone”, creating a “thirty–second monopoly of knowledge” over competing cities (Carey, 2009, p. 169). This was a mechanism of control that was put in place to slow down communication against the instantaneous capacity of transmission of information through the telegraph. Nowadays, the speculative capacity of the financial sector is conducted by private dedicated fibre optic enabled Internet networks for safety and speed. Graham and Marvin point out that WorldCom–MCI’s private fibre optic network in the city of London was responsible for 20 percent of all international telecommunications traffic in the U.K. in 1999 (Graham and Marvin, 2001, p. 2).

19. Ofcom, 2008, p. 7.

20. Hayes, 2011, p. 86.

21. Hayes, 2011, p. 87.

22. D’Costa and Kelly, 2008, p. 14.

23. Nesta, 2009, p. 1.

24. Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2009; Apperley, 2011, pp. 1, 17.

25. FTTN covers the distance between the node exchange and the household using a cheaper solution than fibre optics (such as copper cables or hybrid–fibre coaxial cables). However, as the distance between the exchange node and household increases, the speed of transmission decreases. Copper cables can theoretically deliver up to 100 Mbp/s on a FTTN network, but only if users are less than 100 metres from the exchange node. A single channel on a hybrid–fibre coaxial cable can deliver up to 40 Mbp/s download speed, but the upload speed is limited to 10 Mbp/s (Ayre, et al., 2010; Tucker, 2010).

26. Australian Government, 2011, p. 1.

27. Australian Government. Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2011, p. 6.

28. The Citigroup report also mentioned several issues that would arise if the Coalition decided to “shut down the NBN”, such as: terminating contracts and facing associated penalties, selling the NBN assets spread out across the country, and rewriting Telstra structural separation legislation, an important component of the NBN project. On another occasion, the Coalition’s heavy criticism of the need for exclusive NBN satellites was technically challenged by Optus, who pointed out that the Coalition underestimated network capacity measured against future data consumption (Braue, 2012).

29. A misinformed argument from Radio 2GB commentator Alan Jones about the NBN backfired. Jones argued that a recent technology breakthrough in a laboratory in Germany demonstrated that a single optical fibre could transmit information 200,000 times faster than the NBN initial capability, proving that the NBN was already outdated. On the contrary, as Rod Tucker points out, “the German group has shown us that there is virtually no limit to the speed that a fibre–based NBN can deliver, and that 100 megabits per second is only the start” (Tucker, 2011).

30. U.S. Federal Communications Commission, 2010, pp. 3, 333, 336, 337.

31. U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 2012; Australian Government. Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2011, p. 3.

32. In a video posted by Google on YouTube (YouTube, 2011), a city council official summarised its hopes for the future potential of Google’s initiative: “You have to have a broader vision and know that there’s going to be things that no one has thought of yet, but they are going to be invented, they are going to be created, it’s going to happen right here in our city”.

33. U.S. Federal Communications Commission, 2010, p. XIV.

34. Bell, 2009, p. 46.

35. Australian Government, 2012, pp. 59, 72, 101.

36. There is a school section on the NBN’s Web site with information resources and schools can book classes to learn more about the NBN. It can be accessed at http://www.nbnco.com.au/for-schools/index.html.

37. Australian Library and Information Association, 2011, pp. 3, 13, 17, 32.

38. Australian Government, 2012, p. 6, 7.

39. Australian Government, 2012, p. 75; Australian Government. Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, 2012.

40. Australian Government, 2012, pp. 53, 59, 63.

41. Bell, 2009, pp. 21–29.

42. Williams, 2011, pp. 15, 30–32.

43. Australian Government, 2012, p. 94, 95, 97–99; Access Economics, 2010, p. i.

44. Williams, 2011, p. 28.

45. Morris, et al., 2012, p. 6.

46. For examples of academic research analysing the benefits of high–speed broadband access for aged care, see for example http://broadband.unimelb.edu.au/health/ageing/index.html.

47. Williams, 2011, p. 15.

48. Australian Government, 2012, pp. 72, 73.

49. Williams, 2011, p. 19.

50. Australian Government. Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2011, p. 7.

51. Australian Government, 2012, p. 92.

52. Australian Government. Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2011, p. 6; estimates in Australian dollars.

53. Australian Government, 2012, pp. 83, 84.

54. BBC, 2012; Gibbons and McQuire, 2009, pp. 140, 142.

 

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Editorial history

Received 23 June 2012; revised 15 July 2012; accepted 24 July 2012.


Creative Commons License
“Australia’s project for universal broadband access: From policy to social potential” by Marcos Pereira Dias is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Australia’s project for universal broadband access: From policy to social potential
by Marcos Pereira Dias
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 9 - 3 September 2012
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4114/3299
doi:10.5210/fm.v0i0.4114





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