[Please note that the views and opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, and should not be taken in any way to be reflective or endorsed by the Victorian State Government or the Central Highlands Regional Partnership committee in respect of which I have the privilege of being Chair. However you may take it as a sign of my excitement and enthusiasm for this initiative for our regional and rural communities :-) ]
Yesterday, the Victorian Government announced that it's investing $1mil in Digital Plans for all 9 Regional Partnerships. The initiative is an important component of the $45mil Connecting Regional Communities Program announced by the Victorian State Government last year.
Since the mid 90s, the Victorian Government has been the vanguard of State Governments in fighting to close the Digital Divide. Whether it was setting up Televillage initiatives or aggregating telecommunications and broadband services for the benefit of schools and essential services. The Victorian Government has usually been on the front foot. Even at a national level, Victoria has been unafraid of bucking the initiatives when they didn't add up. And in the midst of what was an increasingly frustrating period of inaction and lack of direction at the Federal level in the mid 2000s, many of us were left to do whatever we could with the adhoc and piecemeal iniitiatives that were offered up.
Swing forward to 2009 and the announcement of version 2 of the National Broadband Network. There was finally a recognition of the fact that the telecommunications and broadband infrastructure market had failed the regional and rural areas and there was finally something that local governments and regional and rural communities and businesses could focus on in moving the regions forward. But as always, its one thing to build new infrastructure, its another thing for the regions to leverage it. Many questions came from regional and rural Australia as to what the NBN would do for us and why such a bold and expensive project needed. The gap between knowing this was important and knowing what to do was evident.
There was never any question about the fact that with the progressive rollout of the NBN, it was important for local governments to grasp the potential. But with little technical understanding or experience of high speed broadband and communications, it was important to get the message out that it was not about technical prowess but economic and social outcomes and benefits. Together with the Centre for eResearch and Digital Innovation (CERDI), we've worked with local Governments in many parts of Regional Victoria to create understandable and comprehensible digital strategies and plans with a focus on closing up on the Digital Divide. You'll find a lot of the work here.
Many of those strategies were adopted by local councils in their region and some of them have been refreshed. But a lot of this process was about councils bravely trying to tackle the onslaught of technology in their own areas and in some cases having a "go it alone" focus. Tackling the implications of a digital revolution whilst dealing with the question of when and how the NBN would be delivered to regional and rural populations has been daunting even for the experts.
What is important now, and agreed throughout all 9 Regional Partnerships, is a recognition of the critical importance of good telecommunications and broadband infrastructure and services to the regional and rural populations. As we have long said, the further out you go from a metropolitan centre, its a case of less want more need. And its not just about the NBN. Some have remonstrated that with the 4G network rolled out, 5G in the starting blocks and NBN on its way, regional and rural connectivity issues are already being solved. Anyone who lives outside of a major population centre in the regions well knows otherwise.
First, there are still holes in mobile coverage. That's why there is a mobile blackspots program at both Federal and State level. Secondly, the NBN is primarily a consumer and small business network. There are solutions that businesses and organisations need that will be outside of the NBN's remit and footprint. An example is narrowband networks, and their impact on IoT and emergency services. And long term, beyond 2020, we want to make sure that we have the evidence and data to measure whether those existing services such as NBN, are keeping up with our needs.
So what's different about the Digital Plans initiative this time around?
The very first iteration of the Digital Plans are scheduled to be completed by the end of June. It doesn't sound like a lot of time, but this is where the plans *start* its not where they finish.
Behind the plans themselves will be a significant and cumulative database, comprising technical data about networks and where they are, service providers, products, services, government infrastructure .... etc etc. Overlaid on top of this base will be information collected from the regions and communities as to services available, unmet demand and forecasts of new developments, new business initiatives and new planning.
As the plans develop and evolve, so too will the database of information grow, going from a status report on the state of play in the region to a report card on how well we are going in closing the Digital Divide. This will be collected in an online resource with the ability of Councils, businesses and members of the community being capable of leveraging it against providers and Governments about what have, what we don't have and what we need in Regional Victoria. We'll have the evidence and data and we'll be able to map out the shortfalls and be innovative about what it is we can do in the future with good infrastructure.
Each of the nine regions will have its own unique challenges and needs, but for the first time, the Digital Plans initiative gives us an ability to take a consistent statewide regional viewpoint and long term focus. All going well, each of the Digital Plans might well form up as a chapter of a plan and strategy for the entire State.
The Central Highlands Regional Partnership has had the good fortune of having a long antecedence in taking the initiative when it comes to broadband and telecommunications infrastructure. What we are doing in leading off this initiative, is leveraging our experiences, good and bad, for the benefit of the other Partnerships.
We have spent many years being frustrated by a lack of progress in our regions in closing that fabled Digital Divide and having the attitude that "The Cavalry's not coming, we ARE the Cavalry" . This time we got listened to, and this time I think we've been empowered supported and resourced to get things done.