Can the NBN save regional Australia? Does regional Australia even need saving? Is the lack of the NBN rollout in regional Australia just one of the symptoms of the general malaise in relation to regional infrastructure that governments have demonstrated for many years? I can’t guarantee that I will answer any of these questions – but at the very least I would like to start a discussion around these points and let you come to your own conclusions.
Firstly, let me jump back a little in history. In the late 1800s through into the early 1900s, regional areas were thriving hubs of activity. When you look at a population heat map throughout regional NSW from 1911, there are a number of small dots representing many small communities. Australia was producing wool and wheat and it was in 1894 that the expression was coined that Australia was ‘Riding on the Sheep’s back’ and wheat was so successful across many regional areas that by the 1870s there were over 500 flour mills scattered across the nation. With minimal mechanisation, manpower was needed to work on the farms and in the associated industries, so regional populations were strong.
Transport was also limited with rough roads – more like tracks – being used by people on horse or foot. Subsequently, people lived very close to their place of work.
In the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, two major changes would occur.
In 1908, Henry Ford had his first Model T Ford roll off the production line. It was the first of some 15 million. Colonel Harley Tarrant assumed the responsibility for distribution of Ford automobiles in Australia in the same year.
The following year, Alfred McDonald produced and sold Australia’s first locally-made internal combustion tractor, a McDonald Imperial. Thirteen years later, Alexander Kennedy became the first Qantas passenger on a scheduled flight. This was on 2 November 1922.
Without realising the implications at the time, these three events were largely responsible for the reduction in the required workforce in regional Australia, in my opinion. The mechanisation of the processes reduced the number of employees required in the agricultural sector (from 23.4 per cent of employment in 1901 to 3.3 per cent today) and the efficient transport methods meant that where people lived and worked were becoming uncoupled.
The locational decision was being made more and more on that all-encompassing concept of amenity. Amenity can really mean what you want it to mean. Strictly speaking it can be just about how something looks but I tend to use it to reflect all of the things that people want. Facilites; comfort; convenience; essentials; niceties and everything else you want.
Which, in a very roundabout way, brings me back to the NBN.
If I was the Mayor of a city and I asked you to come and live in my city – but bring your own generator because we aren’t connected to the electrical grid – then, despite how nicely I might ask, I don’t think I would be inundated with requests to make the move. I believe that in terms of ‘amenity’, most people would put electricity in the essential bracket. Unless you particularly liked the rural lifestyle, you would probably put drinking water and sewerage in the same bracket. The list goes on – jobs; education; medical services; government departments; telephones; mobile phone coverage; etc. Depending on the individual, other facilities might be nice but not essential. These might include cultural facilities; higher education; sporting facilities; good shopping choices (my daughters would put this in the essential category); variety of supermarkets and many others.
The real question then becomes which bracket the NBN fits into. Is it an essential service – just like electricity – where people moving from a metropolitan location simply assume it will be available – or is it a luxury? After all, who cares if you can download a movie in twenty seconds as opposed to twenty minutes?
At the moment, I wouldn’t actually put the NBN in the essential service category. Internet connection I would but not the NBN but, and this is a big but, if a regional area has the NBN – in particular FTTP NBN, that location will stand out above similar locations. I don’t believe the NBN will be the sole reason for someone making a locational change – but there is no doubt it is a determining factor.
In the US there are city-wide rollouts occurring with Gigabit technology – this is ten times faster than our NBN. This has been happening for several years so there is some good data already. The FTTH Council released a study that showed a house with access to fibre will sell for 3.1 per cent more than a similar house without fibre and a house with access to Gigabit speeds will sell for a 7.1 per cent increase. That puts a serious value on this component of amenity!
Chattanooga (yes, the same as the song) was the first city in the US to complete a city-wide Gigabit rollout. They had been voted the dirtiest city in the US and over the previous thirty years they had experienced average annual population decline of 0.04 per cent. Three years into the program and they are growing at 1.2 per cent. Kansas City was the first ‘Google Fiber’ (excuse the American spelling but it is an actual name) city. For forty years their population had been declining at 0.3 per cent per annum. Three years in and their annual growth is now 0.9 per cent.
Regional Australia may not need saving. There may be other areas on infrastructure where money could be spent. If the NBN is not the saviour of regional Australia it sure as heck seems like it could make a positive difference.
Tell me your answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.