Government protection of NBN endangering regional digital development

It was astonishing to hear the news the Federal Government has set up the Regional Digital Tech Hub as part of their $220 million Stronger Digital Connect Package.

It seemed like it would be great an infrastructure hub. But no it is just another website and a set of new brochures.

Over the last 15 to 20 years, government after government, on federal and state levels, have created these information centres aimed at educating and informing the public about the digital economy and how to become involved in it.

Now there is nothing wrong with education and information, but the question is, after two decades, it is still necessary? 

The problem is no longer a lack of understanding but a lack of good quality infrastructure that people and businesses in rural and regional Australia can use to connect.

When we nowadays read about a hub, data centres, data analytics, very fast broadband, cloud computing and so on come to mind. There is absolutely no lack of understanding on the importance of the digital society and the digital economy, be it in relation to smart farming, smart towns, connected communities, e-education, e-health and so on.

What these regions are screaming for is reliable, quality infrastructure and this requires broadband networks with sufficient capacity, think about highways and freeways rather than dirt roads and goat tracks.

Most people in regional and rural Australia have an even better understanding of the digital society and economy as well as the underlying technologies simply because they far more rely on this than many of their counterparts in suburbia.

It was rather ironic that on the same day the Australian Government announced its new sets of brochures and a website to address the issue, the U.S. Government announced a $9.2 billion investment in regional and rural broadband infrastructure.

Regional Australia secures own digital success despite Coalition's woeful NBN

A few years ago, Tim and Lesly Nulty – regional broadband experts from Vermont in the U.S. – visited Australia to promote fibre to home business models for regional and rural communities. They have been involved in a range of such small-scale projects in the USA, with many positive results.

Here is an update on their latest project in Mansfield, Vermont.

For this project, they have raised and invested approximately $2.5 mil so far, have 85 miles of fibre up and lit passing about 1,100 premises and are completing another 40 miles. They are in the process of finalising another U.S.$4.5 million (AUD$5.9 billion) of finance which will fund expansion over the next two years which will more than double their network. 

After that, they will be able to finance a modest expansion entirely from internal surpluses, even if they cannot (or decide not to try to) raise more outside investment. The company at that time (around 2024) will have about 2,000 subscribers, about $3.5 million per year in revenue and will be headed for an overall rate of return on investment well north of 20% per annum. 

This will also enable them to finance an additional 20 plus miles of expansion per year.  

Another one of their projects, ECFiber now covers 31 towns covering about 1,500 sq miles with a total population of approximately 75,000.

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Unfortunately, there was little interest at state government or industry levels to undertake such projects in Australia, mainly because of the restriction put in place to safeguard the NBN. They were warned that such regional projects would not be welcomed by the major players and that they would not be able to count on their cooperation.

It is a real problem that we are not looking at more innovative, small scale projects in Australia.

We also see such projects developed in the Netherlands where the roll-out of broadband is managed by the cities and provinces, not by the federal government.

Many provinces and cities are actively investing in these projects to supplement the investments made by the companies rolling out the networks. The regulatory condition is that one party invests in the physical network on which other parties can provide their services.

The interesting development here is that now most regional and rural towns have fibre-to-the-home networks (on the map the eastern, northern, and southern parts of the country) the western parts, where the largest cities are, lag. It clearly shows the can-do community spirit in regional areas.

Ending on a positive note, what the new Regional Digital Tech Hub could do is become the catalyst for the development of true digital data in regional Australia. What they really need are infrastructure hubs.

If the National Farmers Federation, who has been given the money to run the hub, could use this initiative as well as their political power, it could turn this project into a real game-changer for regional Australia.

The rise of the Australian smart city

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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Cheng Lei, Australian anchor detained in Beijing, accused of ‘endangering China’s national security’

China says an Australian television anchor being detained in Beijing is suspected of “criminal activities” endangering national security.

The confirmation of the allegations against Cheng Lei came on the same day two Australian journalists were rushed out of China after being questioned by the country’s Ministry of State Security.

Ms Cheng, who worked for the Chinese Government’s English news channel CGTN, was detained in Beijing last month.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Ms Cheng was “suspected of carrying out criminal activities endangering China’s national security.”

He said “compulsory measures” had been taken and the case was now being investigated “by the relevant authority.”

“Now this case is being handled according to law and Cheng’s legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed.”

Cheng Lei was detained last month and is being held under “residential surveillance”.(Source: CGTN)

Associate Professor Feng Chongyi from the University of Technology Sydney, who was himself detained in China for a week in 2017, said it was a serious accusation.

“This ‘endangering state security’ is very broad, very vague,” he said.

“That means they haven’t decided which direction they want to go and what kind of accusation or charge they want to lay later.”

Ms Cheng is being held under what is called “residential surveillance at a designated location”.

It is a form of detention in which investigators can imprison and question a suspect for up to six months while cutting them off from lawyers and the outside world — all before they have even been formally arrested.

An image of a man outside a streetscape in Sydney
Dr Chongyi, has been detained by Chinese authorities under similar circumstances to Ms Lei.(ABC News)

China becoming like North Korea, journalist says

Dr Feng criticised China’s treatment of ABC correspondents Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith, who arrived in Sydney on Tuesday morning.

“It’s simply ridiculous for Chinese authorities, for political manipulation, to show they have power over Australian citizens, journalists, or anyone else in China to intimidate the Australian Government and the public,” he said.

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Bill Birtles speaks to reporters on landing in Sydney

Having been warned by Australian officials that he should leave China, Birtles was holding farewell drinks when a group of police officers arrived at his house in the middle of the night.

Smith said he received a similar visit at his Shanghai home.

“One has a huge camera, there’s a spotlight shining in my face and they sort of start reading from a document which is sort of outlining China’s national security laws, but they also tell me that I’m a person of interest in a case and they’re going to want to talk to me,” he told 7:30.

“And they also informed me, which is the most disturbing, that I’m subject to what’s called an exit ban and I can’t leave China.

“So this is all as you can imagine, pretty scary, quite intimidating.”

Smith and Birtles with their arms around each others shoulders, as they stand in the middle of Shanghai Airport's terminal
The Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith (left) and the ABC’s Bill Birtles at Shanghai Airport on Monday..(Supplied)

Birtles sheltered for several days in the Australian embassy in Beijing but when Smith went to the Shanghai consulate he was told he would need to be moved to a more secure location.

“Shanghai is not like Beijing, it doesn’t have a big embassy compound,” he said.

“I was taken to another location that still protected under the Vienna Convention, so technically, the Chinese authorities can’t come in.

“I had to quickly stop at my house on the way, get my bags. That was quite an operation on its own.

“And we had a couple of plainclothes people following us the whole time. So it was all it was all quite intimidating.”

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Mike Smith says he felt ‘a little bit’ threatened before leaving China

Both journalists later gave interviews to Chinese authorities before they were allowed to the leave the country.

Their withdrawal means no major Australian media outlets now have a presence in China, something Smith described as “hugely disappointing.”

“A lot of journalists are leaving China, a lot of Americans have been expelled from China,” he said.

“I believe this does China a disservice, because you’ve got reporters reporting on China from the outside, they’re fairly likely to be critical. They probably don’t understand what’s going on there.

“So, you know, it’s almost becoming like North Korea. I mean, there’s sort of not a lot of journalists left in China who really understand the place.”

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