Tasmania's battle for an NBN future

Tasmania's business leaders have fought long and hard for the NBN in the hope that it will reinvigorate their faltering economy. Their example shows why Australian businesses need to rally and support this project.

While South Australia struggles with the future of the motor industry and the Liberal Party prepares to announce its broadband policy in Canberra, across Bass Strait Tasmania’s business community is working on how the island state sees itself in the 21st Century.

In 2010, Tasmania decided the Federal election when the Liberal Party failed to win any of the state’s five seats and the national broadband network was one of the crucial issues that separated the parties.

For Tasmanians, the state’s future is tied into communications and technology connecting new industries and global markets, making high speed internet a key economic development issue.

On the face of it, the portents for Tasmania aren’t good with major employers closing down, an aging population and a stagnant property sector. Many businesses are doing it hard and confidence, particularly in the state’s north is weak.

“In Deloraine, the first business to close after Gunns' withdrawal was the local Beaurepaires franchise,” local business leader Jane Bennett says when pointing out the effect of industries like logging shutting on the local communities.

Jane, who sits on the Brand Tasmania and ABC boards, sees the potential of the state being in high value added goods and using the internet to promote the state to the world, “the state is too small to play in bulk commodities, we need to specialise.”

Part of moving away from bulk commodities is the choke point across Bass Strait with almost every business owner complaining the cost of shipping to Melbourne is more expensive than the same freight travelling from mainland Australia to East Asia.

This isn’t expected to get better – “freight is not going to get cheaper,” says Darren Alexander, who owns Launceston software company Autech and is one of the Federal Government’s NBN champions.

Darren sees weaning the state off relying on expensive transport links and moving to a higher value economy with industries like software and tourism as being key parts of Tasmania’s future.

Certainly the current transport links to Mainland Australia are not helping Tasmania’s economy, last weekend’s V8 Supercars booked out most the freight links out of the state when the race organisers moved onto their next event in New Zealand.

That almost all the Supercars’ logistics were shipped in also illustrates one of the weaknesses in the Tasmanian economy, that that all that transport had to be done via Melbourne as the state lacks the sea or air links to take the teams directly to New Zealand is another concern.

A similar communications bottleneck is what drove the Tasmanian push to get better broadband links. The founders of Digital Tasmania set up their advocacy organisation when they discovered the Tasmanian government was paying for unused fibre laid as part of the BassLink power cable connecting the island and mainland’s electricity networks.

It was Digital Tasmania’s campaigning that lead to the state being the first to get the NBN and finally getting the paid for, but unused, third subsea link operational.

Even with BassLink’s fibre now lit up and operational, the three connections are still seen as a limiting factor in the state’s connectivity and there’s a proposal to build a subsea link between Tasmania and New Zealand which would provide both with additional redundancy and competition.

The embrace of broadband internet by Tasmania’s political and business community is a measure of how concerned the state’s leaders are with the issues facing the island’s economy.

Yesterday’s jobs announcement by GMH and today’s arguments about the NBN shows much of mainland Australia has to address the same problems.

For Tasmania, and the rest of Australia, it’s up to business leaders to emphasise to our political masters just how important it is to build the highways of the 21st century.