Amid a tight government budgetary environment, Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles has defended spending AU$120,000 for installing free Wi-Fi on Darwin buses.
In February, it was announced that the NT would expand the number of buses with Wi-Fi from five to 10 by the end of March for services across Alice Springs and Darwin. As of June, there are now 10 in Darwin and six in Alice Springs.
According to the NT government (PDF), AU$84,000 has been spent on installing Wi-Fi at interchanges, and over to AU$145,000 has been spent on the installation of Wi-Fi on the existing 15 buses. Each bus costs approximately AU$10,000 to equip with Wi-Fi, and installation is handled by a private contractor.
The annual cost of maintenance is over AU$41,000 for the buses, and AU$20,000 for the interchanges.
It comes as the NT government predicted in May that the 2013-14 financial year deficit will reach AU$1.2 billion, and has moved to cut spending in education by AU$14.7 million, and infrastructure investment by AU$64 million.
Despite the belt tightening, the free Wi-Fi for buses project received close to AU$120,000 in the budget to expand the service.
In an Estimates hearing late last month, Labor MP Gerry McCarthy questioned the project, stating that there are other priorities to fund. Giles defended the funding, saying the take-up of the free Wi-Fi has been "substantial".
"Since implementation; 8,785 unique users — that means different phones, iPads, tablets, or otherwise — have utilised the free service 55,531 times. That is an average of six times per unique user," he said.
"For the people who use it, the compliments about modernising the fleet, keeping up with new technology services and ensuring we are in a comparable leading position with our public service network against other jurisdictions in Australia is very important. It means that we are competing with the rest of Australia."
Free Wi-Fi, he said, would be useful to attract students to the NT.
"School students think this is a fantastic initiative. Many of them catch buses where the Wi-Fi is connected, and it saves them the cost of data downloads through their smart phones and tablets," Giles said.
"I would like every bus to have Wi-Fi, but we are not installing it on them all at the moment because we are being efficient with our service delivery, and it would be expensive to roll it out fully."
Each log-on to the bus Wi-Fi offers 90 minutes of use or 100MB of data per day.