I hope many of you are already aware that Engineers Australia has designated 2012 as the Year of the Regional Engineering Team (YoRET). Regional Engineering Teams, more than most of us, will be conscious of the challenge presented by the “digital divide” being the barrier to affordable access and use of digital economy tools in regional and rural Australia. It’s not as bad as it used to be and many localities will in due course benefit from ubiquitous affordable high speed broadband delivered by the National Broadband Network or whatever other scheme is in place by the time it reaches everywhere. Indeed the plan is to deliver ubiquitous affordable high speed broadband to all locations with 3% of premises receiving the service by satellite service, 4% by a terrestrial wireless service and the remainder by fibre to the premises/home (FTTH). An interim satellite service will be replaced by a recently announced purpose built satellite network for the 3% of premises targeted for satellite service. Whilst FTTH will deliver up to 100Mbps (more is feasible), wireless and satellite access will deliver a 12Mbps/1Mbps service. It’s unlikely that these lower speeds to rural areas will materially impact their ability to participate in the digital economy.
On the other hand urban Australians are accustomed to carrying their communications capability in their pocket. Mobile use is often problematic outside towns in rural areas resulting in a significant digital divide. Mobile satellite services are available albeit with relatively heavy use costs. Urban Australians can so readily take their mobile telephony and computing capabilities for granted whilst regional engineering teams cannot.
Technology can help to some extent including extending the reach of cells (at least to full line of sight) by various techniques including use of lower frequency bands. The reach of optical fibre networks in NBN should facilitate lower cost implementation of additional coverage. Emerging technologies such as femtocells could provide lower cost options using NBN access. However it remains unlikely that, for instance, all rural highways will be covered in the foreseeable future, leaving the only option inferior mobile satellite capability.
Pragmatically the engineer understands that it is simply uneconomic to provide 100% terrestrial wireless coverage in Australia. Some improved coverage would result if carriers collaborated to avoid unnecessary duplication of networks and were prepared to share access in marginal coverage areas through appropriate roaming agreements.
Network infrastructure duplication does represent a serious economic cost in marginal economic locations. Those following the development of the Universal Service Obligation in the NBN era will be aware of the ongoing obligation to maintain copper wire networks to deliver the universal telephone service in areas served by NBN wireless or satellite. Yes, this is surprising recognising the challenge of maintaining a copper network in the rural environment and the long standing criticism of the services provided would seem to make rural Australia the last place one would wish to maintain a copper network. Perhaps wireless and satellite delivery of Voice over IP services is not considered sufficiently reliably however that would seem to be a technical challenge which will be overcome. Continuing to maintain a copper wire network duplicating a sophisticated broadband network simply doesn’t seem to be a good solution!
Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Engineers Australia.