Making "Broadband for all" a reality

Widespread availability of fast broadband to all citizens, in all industries, in every part of the country needs to be a matter of national priority, with governments and private institutions willing to share the burden.

Consider the difference between a student with broadband access, and one, well, without. The broadband student can access school-specific online resources, draw on multiple local and international sources, and even collaborate with like-minded students around the world. The student without has to rely on (often) limited school resources, dated textbooks and static learning materials.

If you think this is an obvious and disingenuous comparison designed to bolster the importance of broadband, think again.

In healthcare, broadband access can support economic growth primarily through reducing costs. Individuals in remote areas can cut down on travel costs through video consultations, meaning those patients have more money to spend elsewhere, while also having more ready access to health services and more opportunities to research health service providers.

In addition, data delivery methods which was formerly restricted to post and courier should be quicker, more reliable and less expensive with a high-capacity network, even for bandwidth-hungry data such as x-ray images.

Since education and healthcare are, arguably, two cornerstones of modern economic advancement in developed countries such as ours, it stands to reason the widespread availability of fast broadband to all citizens in all industries and in every developed and developing region of the country should be a matter of national priority.

Broadband is also enabling working from home, a sure-fire way to increase productivity – in a nation where productivity is a primary concern. Research suggests that  if just 10 per cent of Australian employees were to telework 50 per cent of the time, total annual productivity gains would be in the order of up to $1.9 billion per year by reducing commute times, office space and staff turnover.

If the economic value of broadband isn’t patently clear by now, consider this: according to a recent UNESCO/ITU Broadband Commission report, every 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration within a country drives a 1.3 per cent additional growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Broadband-for-all business model 

While the case for greater broadband access is clear, the process for achieving it is the real challenge.  To succeed, Australia needs to support a broadband-for-all business model that engages all key stakeholders, including governments, private enterprises, and even the public.

Although it remains politically sensitive even today, the National Broadband Network (NBN) is widely viewed as a step in the right direction for achieving a ubiquitous broadband model in Australia. The NBN, while unique in its scale, is certainly not unique by world standards; ubiquitous broadband networks have been a feature of many leading Asian economies such as South Korea and Japan for years, and even smaller economies like New Zealand are well down the road of blueprinting national broadband infrastructure.

Governments, in each case, play a particularly critical role in driving broadband penetration, because – let’s face it – left to political races, broadband doesn’t always feature on the list of ‘must have’ services, particularly where sections of society still struggle with basic services such as healthcare and education.

But governments have at their disposal the necessary tools to make broadband a national agenda, and the means to do so without jeopardising their other priorities. For example, by shaping their telecommunications policies and perhaps eliminating taxation and restrictive or technology-biased policies, they could encourage healthy competition in their national telecommunications infrastructure.

Governments should look at how internet content is taxed, and should actively consider investment that drives innovation in Internet-based content for health, education, transport, and content distribution. Since higher density cities are more likely to drive broadband infrastructure development based on natural market adoption, and rural markets are at a significant and growing disadvantage, policy should be weighted to help get broadband to all communities.  This is the driving principle behind New Zealand’s Rural Broadband plan, and is also a stated policy objective of the NBN.

 A shared responsibility

The onus, however, should not rest solely on governments. Private institutions, including service providers and content providers, should also be expected to shoulder some of the burden.

Content providers are driving massive bandwidth requirements resulting in significant cost increases.  Service providers have and will continue to respond by restricting access or passing on the costs to the public. This could place Internet innovation at risk as we referee who can pay, who can’t, and for what.

Most importantly in all this, the public needs to become more aware of the benefits of broadband and its role in achieving economic advancement. The incrementally higher cost of high-speed broadband access is a small investment to make in total savings, much like buying a membership to bulk retailers like Costco.  

In many cases, broadband pays for itself through other savings – online shopping being a case in point, even though it forces a spanner into a more traditional spoke of the economic wheel. And cost savings are only one benefit; there are many social, timesaving and other attractive benefits of ubiquitous broadband access that don’t tie directly to economic impact, but still improve living standards.

Taking control

Fortunately most political commentators in Australia have acknowledged that high-speed broadband services are critical to maintaining Australia’s competitiveness in a global economy, and have committed billions of dollars to be used towards broadband advancement.

However, significantly more investment will be required by many layers of government and the telecommunications and internet industries to truly deliver broadband for all in Australia, and realise the benefits that we’ve already started to see in many different parts of our society.

Anthony McLachlan is the VP Asia-Pacific for networking solutions vendor Ciena