The economic benefits of better broadband have long been a point of contention and a new analysis suggesting big things ahead for Victoria’s Gippsland region might be dismissed as NBN Co cheerleading – but other regions’ experiences suggest the analysis could be spot on.

Gippsland authorities have been working hard to restructure the region’s economy in the wake of an economic slowdown driven by the wake of the closure of cornerstone facilities such as the Hazelwood power station and East Gippsland sawmill.

The concentration of trade and technically-qualified workers in Gippsland – Regional Australia Institute (RAI) figures suggest 8.9 percent of workers in the region are qualified in technology and science, compared with regional Victoria’s average of 7.8 percent – makes the region ripe for reform, the Gippsland Business Growth Opportunities report notes.

Yet regional businesses must be proactive to capitalise upon the opportunities and head off the threat of automation – which, RAI figures suggest, threatens 26.9 percent of the region’s jobs.

“Reducing this vulnerability requires a more technologically engaged and skilled workforce,” the report recommends.

“Fast broadband provides more competitive market conditions both inbound and outbound. Those who act early will be best positioned for growth, and better prepared for and insulated from new competitors outside the region.”

Better digital connectivity was identified as a key challenge in last year’s Committee for Gippsland Strategic Plan 2018-2020, which included plans for a Regional Carbon Innovation Centre and a call for the Victorian government to fund a “digital connectivity master plan” for the region.

A recipe for growth?

Access to National Broadband Network (NBN)-powered services is expected to generate up to 960 new businesses in the region by 2021, the AlphaBeta-authored report concludes, with RAI chief executive officer Jack Archer arguing in a statement that “access to fast broadband encourages new and existing industries within the Gippsland region to become commercially competitive beyond the region and attractive to a professional workforce who desire advanced workplaces for career development.”

NBN Co has worked hard for years to bolster business cases for the NBN, and its series of economic analyses consistently reiterates goals such as getting residents and businesses connected, building a skilled workforce to fuel business innovation, and applying digital technologies to drive revenue growth and operational efficiencies.

Another recent NBN Co analysis made identical recommendations for the mining-heavy area around regional centre Mackay, Queensland – where, the similarly-sourced analysis predicted, NBN connectivity would create up to 700 new businesses by 2021.

Whether the reports represent innovative economic business analysis, or simply rehash well-worn platitudes, is a matter of perspective – but the reports clearly represent an effort to push past what telecommunications industry analyst Paul Budde recently called “confusion and negativity surrounding the project”.

“For all Australians to be able to access the services associated with economic and social benefits a uniform, ubiquitous, high capacity, low latency and secure infrastructure was considered essential,” Budde writes.

“The reality unfortunately is that the current NBN is not of such a ubiquitous quality – for example, it will be difficult, and even impossible, to deliver a range of ubiquitous services in healthcare, education, business, etc to all Australians.”

Spoiled for anything else

Regional centres such as Armidale, NSW and Townsville, Qld – once feted by NBN Co as Australia’s “most NBN-ready city” – were early targets for the NBN, with fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) rolled out early and local governments spending considerable effort in promoting their technological nous.

Townsville’s original Townsville City Digital Economy Strategy (TCDES), for one, flagged ten discrete areas of potential benefit from the NBN and noted the need for “significant development work... across the community” to executive on no fewer than 19 strategic initiatives that would support the development of a digital economy in Townsville.

The mining-heavy area around Geraldton, Western Australia was another early beneficiary of broadband connectivity – and the region, MidWest Development Commission (MWDC) CEO Todd West told Information Age, is much the better for it.

“Once you have access to that speed you’re spoiled for anything else,” said West, whose three-office glazier firm GlassCo regularly uses the network to transfer project files that can easily measure in the hundreds of megabytes.

“Back in the days pre NBN we wouldn’t even have considered trying to upload that amount of data into a cloud service,” West explained. “We would have been waiting forever.”

From iron ore mining to data mining

With his MWDC hat on, West is bullish about the broader potential benefits of broadband for the region, which has become an epicentre of interest for the scientific community thanks to its starring role in the multinational Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – which itself was partly won based on the presence of the NBN.

The elevated profile of Geraldton has attracted a number of information workers and small-business operators, who are attracted to the city’s coastal lifestyle and no longer feel the regional location is an inhibitor to their economic prospects.

“We’ve always been trying to use the NBN as a lever to attract business,” West said, noting the potential industry that could come from, for example, positioning Geraldton as a well-connected data-centre site whose remote location made it an ideal backup site for businesses in Perth or anywhere.

“There are a lot of things that we can do at the technology level that can be achieved very easily by having that speed,” he said, noting – as did the NBN Co reports – that the project’s ultimate success will depend on industry collaboration that aligns the technology with related industries such as renewable energy. “It’s an exciting unknown for us, in the sense that opportunities are going to come out of left field.”

As the NBN rollout steadily approaches its conclusion, those exciting unknowns may well progress to the forefront as Australia’s regional areas work to make sense of what years of government broadband policy have given them.

And while the exact nature of that broadband remains fluid – thanks to recent changes such as the decision to roll back speed targets for the fixed-wireless broadband that dominates in regional areas – a renewed sense of purpose will indeed be crucial to opening up economic opportunities.

And that, Budde notes, includes bringing the government’s vision to the table.

“To move forward,” he writes, “the government... must first come up with a policy which indicates why it wants the NBN; what its importance is for the country; and what its broad parameters are for such infrastructure.”