Armidale is uniquely positioned to become one of the first regional communities to be connected to the Information Highway. A fibre optic network has been constructed and is bringing access to high-speed Internet, tele-health and tele-education.
The leading partners involved in this project were brought together at the Broadbanding of Armidale Summit (March 2003). These include representatives from the Armidale-Dumaresq and Uralla Shire Councils, the University of New England (UNE), New England Smart Communities Action Project (NESCAP), NSW Office of Information & Communications Technology (OICT, now the Department of Commerce), Australian Academic and Research Network (AARNet), New England Area Health Service, the New England Institute of TAFE (NEITAFE) and several state government organisations.
The Summit was opened by Richard Torbay, MP, Independent Member for Northern Tablelands.
Exhibit 1 – Armidale demographics
• Armidale City: 20271 (2001 census);
• + 2,792 (students who were not in town at time of census;
• 8,100 households;
• 16,000 persons greater than 15 years old;
• 1,500 businesses (of all sizes).
Four major projects currently exist in the New England region, and these all have the unique potential to be extended to people’s homes and businesses:
• UNE/TAFE/Area Health secured federal funding for providing broadband to TAFE and health services in 23 regional towns including Tamworth, Armidale, Tenterfield, Guyra, Glen Innes, Walcha, Uralla, Emmaville, Barraba, Manilla, Moree, Narrabri, Wee Waa, Gunnedah, Boggabri, Inverell, Tingha, Bingara, Warialda, Werris Creek, Bundarra and Quirindi. This project was known as the National Communications Fund (NCF) 12 Project.
• NSW’s Office of Information & Communications Technology secured federal funding for the deployment of broadband to 60 health and educational centres in regional NSW including centres in Tamworth, Armidale and Moree. Six sites were identified in Armidale, including the Base Hospital. This project was known as the National Communications Fund (NCF 27) Project.
• The stakeholders of New England Smart Communities Action Project (NESCAP) then received a NSW Government grant for $100,000 to trial wireless broadband technologies at Uralla. Uralla Shire Council is the present champion of NESCAP. Today, Uralla Shire Council has seven sites connected to a Wide Area Network (WAN) as well as fast Internet using Airspan AS4030 carrier grade wireless equipment. The Uralla CTC is also connected to the Internet using this equipment. NESACP then conducted another wireless trial using the Airspan Wireless IP Based Local Loop (WipLL) equipment. The trial has been successful and NESCAP is now looking to encourage the commercialisation of this equipment in Uralla and Armidale by an ISP.
• TransGrid signed a Memorandum of Understanding with The University of New England (UNE), AARNet and Country Energy for the provision of telecom services between UNE and The University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), including a three-year regional pilot (see below).
Community takes charge
The Armidale-Dumaresq Council (20,000 inhabitants), and perhaps more surprisingly, Uralla (2,000 inhabitants) are true leaders in this field. Uralla Shire Council employs the full-time chairperson of NESCAP, which has been involved in looking at broadbanding opportunities in this region for several years. As early as February 2001 an excellent broadband report was provided by Housley Consulting and this eventually led to the formation and funding of NESCAP.
A further indication that broadband was alive and well in Armidale was the fact that, after I gave an interview to ABC Radio on the morning of the Summit, an elderly couple contacted me, wanting to participate. I subsequently had a lively discussion with the 80-year-old husband who was fully aware of the benefits of broadband and wanted information on how to be connected to the new broadband network!
These were his words: “They’d better hurry up, I can drop dead any day and I want to experience broadband before that happens.”
Executive Committee charging ahead
Even before the Summit took place it had already begun to have an effect.
One of the goals that I had set myself for the Summit was to ensure that the various projects would be better aligned and that the potential synergy between these projects would be fully utilised. Communication between partners – and with the community – was another critical element that needed to be addressed.
But the group had beaten me to the post. The key stakeholders had taken advantage of the fact that all the key parties were in town for the monthly NESCAP meeting, and having identified the same issues, they had formed an Executive Committee, which included both Mayors, and the Executive Director Business & Administration from the UNE together with a local businessman and the Member for Northern Tablelands, Mr Richard Torbay, MP.
I am confident that, if anyone can, this group in New England will be able to deal with the complex broadband situation in New England.
I was very impressed by the approach taken by the Uralla Shire Council and the Armidale-Dumaresq Council. They are both fully aware of the problems associated with broadbanding and are prepared to do all they can to facilitate the process.
They are also very much aware of the management function that councils will be required to undertake in respect of the various community issues that will inevitably arise.
Another eye-opener was the role that OICT is playing. There is little resemblance between the bureaucrats that we all joke about and the hands-on people of OICT. They are very much involved, even in the nitty-gritty of this project. They don’t mind getting their hands dirty and are demonstrating true leadership.
In August 2002, the University of New England, TransGrid, Country Energy and AARNet signed an agreement for a new, high-speed telecommunications link between Armidale and Sydney.
Building on Commonwealth funding from the Department of Education, Science and Technology, the University of New England (UNE) will increase its capacity to the AARNet hub in Sydney almost twenty-fold – from 8Mb/s) to 155Mb/s – using optical fibre provided by TransGrid. This link allows the UNE to establish a telecommunications hub at Armidale with the potential to accommodate activities undertaken by the New England Institute of TAFE and the New England Area Health Service, as well as by a future technology park.
Country Energy would provide an optical fibre link between TransGrid’s substation in Armidale and UNE, and explore ways in which UNE’s telecommunications hub could be used in the provision of high-speed telecommunications services in Armidale and the surrounding district. A further extension of Country Energy’s fibre ring will connect schools and health facilities nominated by OICT and Soul Pattinson Telecommunications (SPT).
During the pilot the parties would:
• work with community groups such as NESCAP to develop a better understanding of regional and country telecommunication needs;
• test and evaluate telecommunication technologies such as wireless Local Area Network (LAN) and point-to-multi-point radio systems, suitable for use in regional and country centres;
• evaluate the potential to provide telecommunication services to NSW State Government agencies;
• cooperate in the provision of high-speed Internet connections to schools and other educational institutions in Armidale;
• test various commercial models for the provision of telecommunication services to government, business and residential users in regional and country centres.
The first-mile challenge
The biggest challenge the communities are now facing is to find the first-mile broadbander. By mid-year the 23km fibre loop will be in place in Armidale and it is from that point that businesses and residents will need to be connected. It is still unclear how this will be done. Country Energy is installing the fibre and SPT is connecting six key sites to the network (hospitals and schools).
The ring is a multiple dark fibre cable, so an opportunity exists to create competition. There are, of course, limitations’ regarding the size of the market and this requires sound planning – otherwise it could easily end up in disaster. The Stockholm example (see separate report: Global – Broadband – Telecities (archived)) can provide some guidelines here, bearing in mind that that market is, of course, much larger.
There are also opportunities for alternative first-mile technologies, like PLC and 802.11.
The Uralla project is also challenging. The community is too small to justify a copy of the Armidale optical fibre loop however a wireless solution has been implemented. There have been a number of challenges with the wireless project. In addition to finding end-user equipment that is sufficiently affordable to induce a reasonable uptake of the broadband service there is the additional challenge of finding an organisation that is interested in taking on the commercial risk of offering wireless broadband services in a small rural town. Another challenge has been the competitive response from Telstra. When NESCAP announced the establishment of the wireless trial in Uralla, Telstra also announced that the Uralla exchange would be upgraded to offer ADSL services. NESCAP welcomed this competitive response as this ultimately opened the market to competition.