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October 8, 2011

Australia: Leader of the global digital economy?

by Travis Marshall

In 20 years’ time, we are likely to look back on the National Broadband Network as the infrastructure project that changed the nation.  At a cost of nearly $43 billion this is a grand strategy of ambitious proportions that is designed to position Australia at the forefront of the global digital economy, and provide the oxygen under which innovation can flourish.  It will be the largest infrastructure project that has ever been undertaken in Australia’s history, and is the 21st century equivalent of projects such as the Snowy River Hydroelectric Scheme.

The current plan is to connect 93% of Australia’s population to a fibre optic network (achieving up to 1 gigabit per second) with the remaining 7% in rural areas being connected via wireless or satellite links (12 megabits per second).  This will amount to over 10 million premises being connected to high speed broadband over an expected rollout period of 9 years.

In recent months the debate over the NBN has been very focused on alternative views of technology standards and economic models, which – while very important – has often missed the point about what it is aiming to achieve.  The Grand Strategy Project has advocated that Australia must take measures to ensure we become global leaders in the economies of the future, and a modern broadband network is the platform upon which those economies will emerge.  With an expansion of broadband capacity the potential for innovation across a broad cross-section of industries will dramatically improve.

One of the most common examples of an industry that will benefit from broadband is the health industry, where patients can connect to their doctors via video link and therefore remain in their own homes more often.  Education will also be a major beneficiary allowing students to connect to resources that traditional schools and universities would otherwise be unable to offer.  Regional students could conduct science experiments using equipment located in our major cities, or Chinese language students could connect to their tutor in Beijing via video link.

The way we conduct business will also profoundly change with the current shift towards online retailing likely to accelerate into the future, although entirely different business models may also emerge.  Office workers will be able to take their work online conducting virtual meetings and project collaboration from their homes rather than commute.  This will also have considerable environmental benefits with one study indicating 120 million litres of fuel will be saved if 10% of the Australian workforce starts telecommuting 50% of the time.

The impact that physical distance has upon society will begin to break down as digital connectivity begins to make it irrelevant, especially between our rural and urban populations.  This is one of the reasons why connection of rural Australia is so important as the benefits that will emerge for society will need to be realised as a whole rather than causing a polarising of our population.

Our imaginations can only take us so far in this pre-NBN era, but once it is rolled out its true potential will be revealed.  Innovations are likely to emerge that are currently inconceivable and that will have a profound impact on the way we live our lives.  With a sophisticated and highly educated demographic, Australia is likely to embrace the new digital world, and has the potential to become a global leader in the information domain.  It is quite conceivable that the next Silicon Valley may actually emerge in the digital terrain of Australia.

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