SKA town laments FttP NBN demise

A town that was promised early access to the National Broadband Network as part of the Square Kilometer Array project has called on the Australian government to continue the project.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Greater City of Geraldton Mayor Ian Carpenter has called on the Australian government to complete the rollout of the fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) National Broadband Network (NBN) in his regional city in Western Australia, to ensure that the town sees the full benefits of participating in the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project.

In 2011, Nextgen Networks completed the rollout of 426km of dark fibre to Geraldton as part of a bid for Australia to secure the Square Kilometer Array project. In 2012, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) opened up its radio telescope near Geraldton for Australia's part in the shared project.

According to a submission from Carpenter to the NBN Senate Select Committee, the town's council began developing plans to take advantage of the NBN fibre deployment, and, with the help of the WA government and Regional Development Australia, set up goals and a vision for the city, along with a digital strategy based around the notion of the fibre NBN being completed in Geraldton, with a fixed-wireless or satellite service being used in remote areas.

Carpenter said that it was critical that the network rollout go ahead as the source of income for the town changes.

"We believe agriculture and fishing, to some greater or lesser degree, will be compromised in the longer term by the constraints climate change will bring. Our mineral resources will be exhausted at some time in the future," he said.

"It was clear that an alternative strategy to lead us to the future was required. The digital economy was an obvious solution. This, of course, relies on the provision of ubiquitous high-speed data capabilities to all in our community."

Carpenter said that Geraldton was also one of 33 cities in the world to be given the IBM Smarter Cities Challenges grant in 2012, which led to a report produced in consultation with IBM executives that called for the creation of digital hubs in the town.

The council invested AU$5 million in a technology park that has access to the NBN fibre, and Carpenter said the first stage of the park is close to completion, with two digital customers willing to move into the park so far. The council is also offering free public Wi-Fi, and the CSIRO established an office in the town.

Carpenter said this is all under threat now that the government is reassessing the NBN plans, with a view to switching to fibre to the node for most of the existing premises.

"The success of the city's digital strategy is solely underpinned by the commitment of the federal government to roll out all three NBN infrastructure platforms," he said.

"Further investments in digital businesses risk being delayed due to the limited availability or high cost of communications services. These investments and business opportunities may be lost to the region due to the uncertainty of the NBN rollout timetable, and the eventual service that will be delivered."

Carpenter said that Geraldton also risks losing its population over time without ubiquitous broadband connections.

"Today's youth live an always-connected existence, dependent on ubiquitous communications. They strive to connect with their peers, take part in online distance education, and participate in the future digital workforce of distributed but connected people," he said.

"Access to high-speed broadband is essential in the provision of education, employment, and lifestyle opportunities to regional youth, and to stop their exodus to major capital cities."

He said the town believes that fibre to the node is a "stop-gap" method that would use "a degraded copper network system".

Geraldton is far from being the only council to make such a submission to the current Senate inquiry. Gosford City Council, Queanbeyan City Council, Alexandrina Council, Griffith City Council, Albury City Council, Willoughby City Council, and Yarra Ranges Council have all made submissions calling for the government to keep the fibre-to-the-premises project. Many cited the need for high-speed ubiquitous broadband as being required to attract new businesses to their area.

Albury City Council general manager Frank Zaknich said in his submission that the town has been preparing for the NBN for over two years, and although construction has commenced in the town, and is due to be completed in 2015, Zaknich expressed concern that the government's review of the project would lead to additional delays in the completion of the construction of the NBN in Albury.

"Council's preference is to see the current rollout plan for Albury maintained on the basis that the city is well underway in its staged access to the NBN. We consider that any proposed alterations to delivery would be impractical, incurring further costs and inciting tension amongst our community," he said.

"We are also extremely concerned that the current limitations to data access being experience by residents services by the Telstra copper network are already presenting a significant impediment to our social and economic development, and that they will not be resolved by a solution that relies on utilisation of an ageing, inadequate network."

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has previously said that many of the issues outlined by the councils will be addressed in the long-awaited cost-benefit analysis that is due to be completed later this year.

Editorial standards