Peter Lieverdink blogs on the government's regional broadband plans. I actually think they've done a pretty good job of balancing service provision with cost. It's never going to be easy to provision all of Australia's vast, mostly uninhabited regions, and I don't think it really should be the government's job. Governments aren't forced to provide free water, gas and electricity connections, so I don't see why broadband has suddenly become some must-have.
That said, there are clear economic benefits to getting the regions some form of connectivity. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh showed this at a base level when it covered the country with mobile towers and built a workable way of getting phones out there. It meant farmers could phone ahead to see what prices they could expect for their crops before paying a truck driver to take their crop to market.
Similarly there's a lot of tangible benefit farmers in remote areas will get from internet access. Climate information. Remote education. The latest best practices in farming.
But we shouldn't necessarily be writing a blank cheque to subsidise this. The cost of communications should be factored in as part of the farmer's cost of doing business. Just as transport costs, rising and falling market prices for their crops and the inputs like fertiliser are built into their costs.
Many years ago, when Telstra still had a monopoly and a duty to provide telephones to anyone who asked for one, I visited a vast sheep station outside Quilpie in Western Queensland. The homestead had a phone line, provisioned by a huge microwave tower. He'd paid only $5,000 for the phone line, a tiny fraction of what must have been an immensely costly installation. Because of the massive subsidy, he also had such a phone line put into their other, uninhabited, house across the other side of the property. Previously anyone staying in that house had, quite effectively, used HF radio to keep in touch with the main house, but due to a massive subsidy they'd installed a phone line that would rarely ever be used.
What needs to be kept in mind with the Opel rollout is that the most important factor is the rolling out of ADSL2+ to regional towns and cities. For people living in these towns and cities, they'll soon have access to the same broadband we currently get in some parts of the capital cities. That's a major step forward, and the fact it's being done as an open, competitive platform open to all ISPs is an incredible leap forward, and something Telstra would never have offered.
Peter's quip about hosting servers in the regions misses the point. You'd never dream of hosting out in the bush when you can, much more cheaply and much better-connectedly host in a world class data centre in the big smoke. Hell, I'm amazed anyone bothers hosting anything in Australia at all given our high prices and the ridiculously cheap, reliable hosting you can get in the US.
All up, and somewhat surprisingly given how clueless Coonan is, I think the government have made a good decision here. It remains to be seen if they are rushed into making a poor decision under Telstra's hectoring when it comes to the FTTN proposals that are (in the case of the G9 at least) on the table. I would much prefer they deferred a decision on this until after the election, or we risk seeing Telstra effectively re-monopolize the entire telecommunications market in Australia. Again. Remember when it used to cost $300 (probably $600 in today's money) to get a phone line connected?