A fibre freeze is hampering Tasmania’s tech transformation

The Apple Isle is forging a new future in the global digital economy, but issues with the NBN, data centres and backhaul are holding it back.

Tasmania may not spring to mind when you think of Information and Communication Technology growth and innovation but the Apple Isle is forging a new future in the global digital economy. Tasmania has a lot going for it as a destination for ICT organisations and the next decade will be crucial if Tasmania’s transformation is to succeed. 

Tasmania’s ICT peak body, TASICT, recently held its annual conference in Hobart, and judging by the number of organisations and people participating in the conference it was obvious that not only was it a success, but there was an underlying optimism among attendees and a steely resolve whenever the National Broadband Network was mentioned.

In the 2014 budget the Tasmanian Liberal government rejigged the former government’s contribution to the ICT sector. The result has been a continued focus on encouraging growth in the sector, with the state hoping to grow its share of the 350,000 Australia-wide ICT sector jobs expected by 2015.

Over the past 15 years the number of ICT-related jobs in Australia has doubled. When you consider that every business and industry has begun the shift to embrace the global digital economy there can be no doubt that Tasmania will also transition.

But there are a couple of sticking points halting this digital change, and both are tied to fibre technology.

The SubPartners beachhead

The first involves the need for an enterprising ICT organisation to work with the state government to land a fibre tail from the SubPartners APX-Central submarine cable. The 100 Gbps APX-Central submarine cable will hold four fibre pairs and utilise 65 repeaters fed by a power feed inside the submarine cable.

A connection to SubPartners APX-Central could boost Tasmania’s ICT sector and provide the impetus necessary for competitive commercial data centres to be built. The current state government promised as much with the "data centre action strategy" it took to the last election. A SubPartners fibre link to Sydney or Perth would offer alternate routes to Asia and the US through the APX-West and proposed APX-East submarine cables.

Speaking at the TASICT conference, Tasmanian Information Technology and Innovation Minister Michael Ferguson said that he had held discussions with SubPartners, and while the discussion was positive the state government had yet to make up its mind as to whether it would participate in the project.

Ferguson offered assurances that the government would look favourably on the SubPartners project, saying that it will continue to work with the company to help “facilitate this important project for Tasmania”.

Tasmania deserves full-fibre

Tasmanians believe they were promised by both the former and current Federal governments that the FTTP rollout would continue unabated until the entire state was connected to the NBN by fibre, wireless or satellite. Whether this is actually true or not is subject to debate, but there is a strong argument for the FTTP rollout to continue in Tasmania.

Tasmania’s ICT sector has grown to generate an estimated $2 billion in 2015. Speaking at the TASICT event, Dr. Mike Briers, a co-founder of financial data provider and analysis firm Sirca, is a firm believer that Tasmania’s ICT sector has the potential to re-energise the entire Tasmanian economy.

But for the sector to grow there’s a need for NBN Co to resolve ongoing problems with its construction partner Visionstream. Last month it announced that it would lay off up to 80 staff due to uncertainties surrounding the rollout.

I met with staff from NBN Co and contractors on a recent visit to the NBN Co Hobart PoI (point of interconnection) and construction sites hosted by NBN Co. During visits to NBN Co sites around Australia over the past two years, I have witnessed the enthusiasm and determination of the workers on the ground to get the job done. This was very evident in Hobart. There’s also a realisation that the NBN is vital for Tasmania’s future.

In a positive announcement last month, NBN Co said it would look at bringing on a second contractor in Tasmania to oversee and speed up the NBN rollout. There has been considerable concern among the Tasmanian ICT sector that the NBN rollout has slowed considerably in 2014. As reported in the state’s local paper The Mercury, TASICT executive officer Dean Winter said he was “relieved that NBN Co had finally admitted there was a problem”.

Tasmania could be a bellwether for the NBN, and it’s vital that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull gets involved to ensure that the Tasmanian NBN rollout is completed in 2015. Tasmanians should expect nothing less.

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University.