Wearing Google's eTown crown

Perth isn't just the epicentre of the mining boom but it's also leading the way when it comes to the digital economy. Whether it's city or country, our appetite for high speed broadband is on the rise.

A generation ago civic minded communities worked hard to win Tidy Towns competitions. Today we have eTowns – towns and suburbs competing to be ranked among the most connected communities in the country.

This week Google announced their inaugural eTown awards based upon the community’s usage of the company’s Adwords and Getting Aussie Business Online services.

Leading Google’s list of most connected council areas was the City of Perth ahead of a diverse mix ranging from inner Melbourne’s City of Yarra through to Queenland’s Scenic Rim Shire Council and Northern Tasmania’s Meander Valley Council.

The West Australian capital may be the epicentre of the nation’s mining boom but as it turns out its leading the way when it comes to the digital boom as well. Byron Shire in NSW led the regional rankings and the nomination of country areas is another example of the regional Australia’s efforts to make sure they are connected to the communications channels of the 21st Century

Digital Tasmania lead the campaign for better regional broadband the during the Howard government’s dithering on the issue and the confused early days of the Rudd government believing it was essential the state did not get left behind in the digital economy.

The Tasmanians made clear their desire for the National Broadband Network in the 2010 Federal election by bucking the national trend with the Coalition failing to win any of the state’s seats – the NBN was the policy which kept the Gillard government in office.

Google’s exercise also highlights a couple of salient points about how the digital economy boom is playing out in Australia.

One of the National Broadband Network’s missed opportunities has been in harnessing enthusiasm for high speed broadband in the bush. When Google ran a competition in the United States to choose the city to test their fibre service over 1,000 American towns applied.

Competition between the towns was fierce with attention grabbing banners flown over Google’s headquarters, songs written extolling various city’s virtues and a whole swathe of YouTube channels pressing various communities’ cases.

One town – Topeka, Kansas – even renamed itself Google but disappointingly lost out to nearby Kansas City as the first place to receive the new fiber service.

Sadly neither the Federal government nor the cardigan clad bureaucrats at NBNCo chose to be so creative in choosing their locations for the initial rollout of Australia’s network. Of course there were technical considerations at play but it’s a shame that we never got the chance to see Burnie renamed Conroytown or Toowoomba become NBNville.

Interestingly, the enthusiasm for broadband and online services is not overwhelming among businesses though, the Getting Australian Business Online joint venture between Google and MYOB missed its target of getting 50,000 enterprises signed up.

Various surveys show between a third and a half of Australia’s 1.7 million small businesses don’t have a website so it is surprising that 50,000 free sites couldn’t be given away. That apathy towards the online marketplace is one of the reasons Australian businesses are struggling in marketplaces that are moving online.

Google’s spokespeople were reluctant to discuss the methodology of their eTowns survey and if it is largely based on Getting Australian Business Online sign ups then it could be affected by small and unrepresentative sample sizes.

What is clear though is that many councils and community groups desperately want high speed broadband, even if the local plumber or baker isn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Those communities wanting broadband are hoping that it will reverse the declines in fortunes and populations many regional centres have undergone in the last fifty years. For those in suburban areas, internet connectivity could be the thing that gives their business communities an advantage over neighbouring suburbs.

So the next time you drive into a prosperous and pretty country town, watch out of those signs on the outskirts. Alongside “Tidy Town Winner 1975” you may see “eTown Winner 2015”.