Digital divide to widen under Coalition broadband plan

Fears expressed that the failure to roll out a ubiquitous network could exacerbate inequal access to services

The lack of provisions for creating an even broadband playing field in the Opposition's recently announced policy is a glaring oversight that could create a multi-speed and uneven economy.

Unlike the Federal Government's National Broadband Network (NBN) plan, which will see committed speeds of up to 100 megabits per second (Mbps) over a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) network to 93 per cent of the population, the Opposition's broadband plan has no aim to provide ubiquity.

Instead the Opposition will implement a plan that involves spending up to $6.25 billion of public and private funding.

The funding will be directed at providing 97 per cent of Australians with a "minimum peak speed" of 12 megabits per second (Mbps). The remaining three per cent will have access to satellite access at an as-yet-undisclosed speed.

The broadband plan composes five separate aspects:

  • $2.75 billion of public funding and an additional $750 million private funding on building an open access, optical fibre backhaul network;

  • $750 million on “fixed broadband optimisation” with a focus on upgrading telephone exchanges without existing ADSL2+ capabilities;

  • $1 billion public grant funding and additional, undisclosed private funding for building a wireless network for rural and regional areas;

  • $1 billion on building a metropolitan wireless network focussed on outer metropolitan areas; and,

  • $700 million on new satellite services to the remaining three per cent of Australians.

During the Australian Computer Society’s (ACS) ICT Policy Forum held directly after the broadband policy’s unveiling at the National Press Club, Greens' senator, Scott Ludlum said he feared the Coalition's plan would exacerbate the digital divide - where some have access to a good level of ICT services and others in the country don't.

The Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) defines the digital divide as "the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities."

Ludlam's fear was shared by University of Adelaide Professor Emeritus of Communications, Reg Coutts, who said the Opposition’s plan failed to strive for the “gold standard”.

“What the Coalition is offering is really a patchwork quilt again,” Coutts said.

“Fundamentally if you are relying on the private sector investing that inevitably means they will invest in some parts of the city and not in other parts.”

Fears the Opposition has failed to pay sufficient attention to ubiquity isn't new, but the release of its broadband policy has service providers Internode and iiNet joining the Competitive Carriers Coalition in lambasting the decision not to ensure Telstra's wholesale and retail arms are separated.

There is also a chance the Liberal's policy will mean Internet-based services providers - cloud computing players, content providers, etc - will have to design their offerings with the existing lowest common speed denominator as the over-arching market. This could in turn inhibit innovation and place Australian developers at a disadvantage, or force them offshore to develop applications that utilise the higher and more ubiquitous speeds of a FTTP network while limiting take up of new services.

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Tags Federal Election 2010National Broadband Commission (NBC)digital dividebroadband

More about Australian Computer SocietyAustralian Computer SocietyetworkFederal GovernmentIinetInternodeOECDTelstra CorporationUniversity of Adelaide

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