Lack of a National Broadband Network cost-benefit analysis hasn't stopped the Victorian Government from basing its newly released $110 million ICT Action Plan around the roll-out of the network.
John Lenders outlines his ICT plan (Credit: David Braue/ZDNet Australia)
State ICT Minister John Lenders yesterday outlined a strategy at an Australian Information Industry Association event that would see the state drawing on multiple available resources, including a $20 million extension of funding to Multimedia Victoria's VicFibreLinks backhaul program to hasten the roll-out of the NBN and enable infrastructure across the state.
That funding will complement the Federal Regional Backbone Blackspots Program, targeting competitive fibre-optic backhaul to regional centres such as Mildura and Warrnambool.
"The impact of the NBN will be profound, and modelling by our government has shown that the minimum 93 per cent coverage target for the nation means that 95 per cent coverage within Victoria is a reasonable expectation ... [we will] facilitate and advocate for the earliest and most extensive deployment of the NBN in Victoria ... additional competitive backhaul will improve the business case for deeper fibre coverage, and we think this will maximise the roll-out of the NBN across the state."
Lenders, who also serves as state treasurer, dismissed suggestions that the lack of a cost-benefit analysis made it premature to base the state's ICT strategy around the still-emerging network, which was the subject of contention as its key architects and opponents debated at this week's CommsDay Melbourne Congress.
"We think the business case stacks up," he said. "But for us, [funding] is an issue for the Commonwealth; they have put the money forward, and we will co-operate and assist them on every measure. [When it's done] the only question will be not how it has been done, but why it took so long for Australia to do it."
Key investments in the ICT plan include $33 million in additional funding for Victorian research labs forming part of National ICT Australia (NICTA) that will support over 160 research positions and further entrench Melbourne's Parkville Precinct — which includes over 10,000 researchers in a 2-kilometre radius around the University of Melbourne — as a centre of excellence in ICT and broadband research.
"ICT can play a role in enabling new types of dialogue and engagement," Lenders said, citing areas such as social media, e-government, mobile applications and open access to government applications through projects such as the second "App My State", which will be held in 2011.
"We do this by demonstrating advanced use of ICT; we can do it by allowing creative reuse of public sector information, and we can use procurement activities to demand innovative solutions to key problems or challenges."
Other elements of the six-point ICT Action Plan include $14 million to fund the second round of the Smart SMEs Market Validation Program, a streamlined innovation and procurement program that partners state government departments with SMEs that would otherwise struggle to access government markets; $8 million for the Smart SMEs Innovation Commercialisation program to help SMEs bring innovative products to market; $4.1 million to create a new Online Media and Digital Publishing Strategy (OMDPS); and $2 million to promote digital media programs through Film Victoria.
Promotion of broadband-enabled applications ranked high on the government's list of priorities, with $9 million for the Re-Innovate Broadband Program, which will focus on fostering projects that use high-speed broadband to "improve regional services and lifestyles" and $5 million for the Collaborative Internet Innovation Fund, which will sponsor development of high-speed broadband applications.
There was also $14.9 million for other programs, including promotion of ICT-related skills training that Lenders said is critical for Victoria to capitalise on its strong academic and research base. Much of this training revolves around encouraging initiatives such as the RMIT and Huawei-backed Next Generation Technology Training Centre, which was announced in July to create 1000 NBN-related training positions.
"There really isn't anything that can derail you quite to the same extent as lacking people and skills," said Tim Piper, director of the Australian Industry Group's Victorian branch, during a panel session at the AIIA-sponsored launch. "We have members who are telling us that even in non-skilled areas, it's very difficult to get people."
Panel speakers focused on other benefits to flow through from the initiative, with the promise of teleworking feeding hopes of making the ICT industry greener and more female-friendly. But the breadth of the government's hopes for the NBN-based economy came when an audience member asked for more clarity around the OMDPS, which is still being finalised in the lead-up to next month's state election.
Randall Straw, deputy secretary for innovation and technology with the Victorian Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development, said that the NBN-heavy strategy could even help Victoria to recapture its pre-eminence in the media industry.
"Thirty years ago, the paper media industry left Melbourne and went to Sydney," he explained. "We think we can recapture some of the national voice — not by trying to compete in the paper world, but by competing in the online world. We see the industry of the future being niche papers and niche online service providers — and not necessarily a broadpage [paper] on a website."
"In the digital journalism space the barriers to entry are very low, but the barriers to success around a business model are very high; that's where we want to emerge, and the elements of OMDPS will be around skills programs especially with regards to small, emerging companies."