Fibre to the Farm

By Steve Jenkin

Barcoo and Diamantina Shires in Queensland have been trying for years to get 700km of Fibre run to their main towns. It seems likely they’ll get a grant in the first round of the National Regions Fund, to be announced in May.

For a time I’ve tried to raise “Fibre to the Farm” with the Rural media:  Is there any good reason that wherever there’s Grid connected power, there isn’t also Fibre Broadband?

This doesn’t cover farms alone, but all the hamlets & villages with grid power. Having “Fibre where there’s Power” will enable cheaper & faster Mobile Black Spot remediation and NBN Fixed-Wireless deployments.

Satellite is only the delivery platform of choice when you’re mobile in remote areas and if the terrain & footprint allow it.

For every other service, especially fixed line, Fibre is the only viable choice for broadband and has been now for over 25 years.

Suggesting “the last 3%” will be well served by Satellite, exactly those people who most need “real” broadband and will gain the maximum benefit from it, is a national disgrace and so convincingly stupid as to defy belief.

There’s 1 million km of Rural Electricity Distribution Network in Australia, with a lot in WA. Running fibre near or on that network will cost $3,000-$10,000/km, or $5-$10 billion, depending on “sweat equity” contributions.

Every rural shire / council in the country, just like Barcoo and Diamantina, wants Fibre to its ratepayers, businesses, medical & educational facilities and their own offices.

There’s a very solid demand out there for “real” Broadband:  scaleable, upgradable, low-cost and low-latency.

What we know about Rural Shires:

  • have deep experience with heavy machinery & construction with substantial plant & equipment assets,
  • know their local area better than anyone,
  • know how to plan, run & deliver local projects “on time and on budget”, and
  • know how to cut costs to the bone, delivering their ratepayers excellent “bang for buck”.

If councils were allowed to plan and build a local Fibre Distribution Network, their contributed funding would best be “In Kind”, not in scarce “hard dollars”:  councils could best contribute supplying planning, project management, co-ordination and construction teams & plant.

This arrangement would allow and encourage property owners and village residents to also contribute “sweat equity” into the project. Just by dint of staying where they live, we know these communities are comprised tenacious, innovative and resourceful residents. Many already willingly involve themselves in community projects: extending from interest to active involvement isn’t a stretch in most of these communities.

If there were a co-ordinated “Fibre to the Farm” project, it would need to involve all three tiers of Government, and would best be led in each area by local government, with State and Federal Government doing what they do best: writing Cheques and checking on Performance.

But there’s another player with a financial interest in all this:  businesses.

The number of large Primary Production businesses that understand the benefit to them of “real” broadband and would contribute to its construction, in cash, time or resources, would be large. It’s not unreasonable to expect them to chip in 20%-25% of the costs, payable up-front or over 5-10 years via their telecomms bills.

The Federal Government, if it wanted, could issue 10-year Govt Bonds at 2%-2.5% to fund the full capital costs of a “Fibre to the Farm” project, as well as directly funding a proportion (25%-33%) of the full project cost (including the value of ’sweat equity’). This pool of low-cost money could be repaid by the various stakeholders at a rate that suited them.

These are record low interest rates, we won’t see them again in our lifetimes. Using them for one of the highest impact Rural Infrastructure Projects of our time, with a clear commercial return, not solely indirect “social benefits”, would seem one of the most obvious and beneficial moves possible in this country.

I’d encourage the rural Shires Council to attempt to influence other councils, State Governments and the political parties that represent Country areas in creating a single, co-ordinated Rural Fibre Network roll-out, not a “one size fits all” design, but custom designed to optimise local needs and available resources. NBN Co, with its purchasing power, could supply all the Fibre and roadside hardware and access to Cable Joiners.

Links:

Radio National Breakfast interview with Cr Garth Tully of Diamantina Shire.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/remote-qld-frustrated-over-poor-telecommunication/6414628

National Stronger Regions Fund

http://investment.infrastructure.gov.au/funding/NSRF/

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