Australia’s Lost Network: Harbour Bridge or Dugout Canoe?

by John Connell

Australia’s then Labour Government (now Labor Party since 2012!) launched its ambitious and far-reaching plans for a National Broadband Network (NBN) in 2010. However, since the right wing Liberal Party won the election in 2013, its Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has killed off any hopes that Australia could join the 21st Century any time soon in terms of its national infrastructure.

As Mary Hamilton writes in this week’s New Statesman, even during the election campaign…..

…Turnbull framed the Internet as a tool for entertainment, not a matter of life and death. The NBN was no longer a crucial infrastructure project: it was an extravagant purchase that Australia could ill afford.

Since winning the election, Turnbull has downgraded the NBN: no longer will they install high-speed optical fibre to every home, institution and business. Instead the initiative merely takes fibre to local cabinets, leaving the ‘final mile’ to Telstra’s ageing and decrepit copper installations to attempt to deliver some measure of broadband. It simply is not up to the task in many parts of the country. With average download speeds of 14.5Mbps and, critically, average upload speeds of just 2.9Mbps, too low to enable, for example, good desktop video conferencing links (using Skype for instance), Australia is now slipping well down the international broadband league tables.

The NBN might have been another Sydney Harbour Bridge: a dazzling feat of design and engineering admired around the world. Instead, its future looks shaky and its eventual usefulness increasingly unclear.

I regularly meet with friends and colleagues in Australia on Skype, on Facebook and on other similar platforms, and the deficiencies of their infrastructure are all too obvious most of the time. It is such a shame when I consider that some of the most forward-thinking and radical movers and shakers in education worldwide are to be found in that country, a community that has long led the way on so many fronts in the global educational conversation. Without the core infrastructure to take education forward, Australia’s education system will struggle to match the vision of its impressive cadre of thinkers and doers in this field.