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Will Rudd's bush backhaul bonanza deliver?

Rural areas will be welcoming the government's decision to put its money where its politicising is, funnelling $250m into a regional fibre upgrade to six rural centres. Remedying over a decade of near-neglect at the hands of telecoms privatisation, the investment could be the firmest step yet for Labor's NBN dream — but with inevitable political questions and a looming election, Rudd and Conroy need to deliver, and quickly, to preserve the NBN's credibility.
Written by David Braue, Contributor on

The Rudd Government's decision to kick off its NBN backhaul upgrades with a $250 million investment in six rural centres may be great news for telecoms in those areas, but it's also an indictment of the fully privatised model of telecommunications that was foisted on rural Australia over a decade ago.

Initially, the Howard Government's assumption was that competitive forces would spur private-sector investment that would generate untold momentum for technological progress. While the cities ended up awash in bandwidth, however, many rural areas were only kept online at all thanks to the pressure of the Universal Service Obligation and related Digital Data Service Obligation, and their paltry 64Kbps minimum connectivity standards.

Did rural Australia fall behind in Australian telecoms as a result? Does a bear do his business in the woods? With 12 years of deregulation having delivered minimal investment into areas including Emerald, Longreach, Geraldton, Darwin, Broken Hill, Victor Harbor and Victoria's South West Gippsland region, the government is finally picking up the baton where the private sector dropped it — not back of Bourke, but somewhere well short of it.

This is the sort of discretionary investment that only the government can justify, and it's a surefire sign that a government-backed NBN was the only way to recover from the deficient and disastrous state of Australia's rural telecoms

This is the sort of discretionary investment that only the government can justify, and it's a surefire sign that a government-backed NBN was the only way to recover from the deficient and disastrous state of Australia's rural telecoms. This concession is borne out by the cautiously positive initial responses to the tender.

It's also one of the first firm commitments made during an NBN process that has proved to be as ponderous, vague and non-specific as Parliamentary Question Time.

Even Tasmania, which was supposed to have fibre going into the ground by now based on the PM's original schedule, is still wondering what the heck is going on. The situation is hardly helped by delays in switching on the Basslink fibre-optic cable, which are contributing to time slippage that's making the Apple Isle look like it may be related to the island in Lost.

The conspiracy theorist in me would like to believe the government is working with Aurora Energy to introduce the NBN in secrecy — flipping the switch in some large-scale ceremony like Telstra did with its Next G network, ideally (for Rudd) about a fortnight before the election. The realist in me is pointing out that delays are business as usual when it comes to government, and is currently beating the conspiracy theorist over the head with a fresh salmon.

The sceptic in me, meanwhile, has latched onto the suggestion that these rural areas were simply a bald-faced play for votes: four of the six regions in Coalition electorates and the other two in marginal Labor party seats. I've questioned the NBN as a political stunt in the past, but in a pragmatic sense can we really expect anything less from Labor or, indeed, from any government?

This line of thought seems supported by the fact that neither Emerald, Longreach, Victor Harbor nor Gippsland were named in the government's initial April announcement about the funding. Rather, they were added in at the expense of independent-leaning Mt Isa, Liberal-leaning Mt Gambier and National Party-leaning Mildura, all of which were named in the April list. Make of this what you will.

If we really thought Labor was digging for votes, we might expect the NBN Company headquarters to be put not in Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane, but in a Coalition-leaning rural centre that's also well-serviced (or is soon to be) with competitive fibre backhaul. Time will tell

If we really thought Labor was digging for votes, we might expect the NBN Company headquarters to be put not in Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane, but in a Coalition-leaning rural centre that's also well-serviced (or is soon to be) with competitive fibre backhaul. Time will tell.

Politicking aside, Rudd and Conroy need to deliver this initial rural broadband investment as quickly and efficiently as possible — and to bring it live as soon as practicable, so that rural Australians can progressively benefit the fibre as it comes online, rather than waiting until some arbitrary date when the whole thing can be switched on. Rural areas have already suffered the damage of 12 failed years of infrastructure policy, and the most politically astute thing Rudd can do now is to make sure they don't wait much longer.

There are concerns, however, even now: it has already taken the Rudd Government nearly two years to get to this point, after it was elected on a platform of revolutionising Australian broadband. In rural areas, this has so far been limited to the piecemeal programs like the Digital Regions Initiative and the provision of pay phones — yes, pay phones — to 300 remote Aboriginal communities. Now that's progress.

The government's track record in delivering this rural backhaul investment will be a much bigger test, particularly as it is challenged with the distractions of a looming election. This distraction will either sideline the NBN process as politicians get caught up in the usual sniping and character assassination, or it will bring the NBN to front and centre as a concrete example of Rudd's ability to get the job done.

And when it comes to the NBN, as we've seen, rural Australians just need to get the job done. If Rudd and Conroy can avoid getting caught up in a massive regulatory, broadband and political fiasco, perhaps the NBN can be their shining glory. The current rural contract will be their biggest test so far — and if they can deliver with something resembling timeliness, they might just prove that this NBN thing is more than a politically convenient pipe dream.

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