Cisco Helps Put Australia's Outback on the Web with "Broadband in the Bush" Project
September 25, 2003
By Jason Deign, News@Cisco
The Australian outback: a place of wide open spaces, scattered aboriginal communities - and massive broadband networks.
An initiative called the Outback Digital Network (ODN) is using Cisco® technology to try to create a digital desert bloom, using broadband connections to foster educational, cultural and commercial exchanges between remote aboriginal communities and the rest of the world.
The first phase of the project, due for completion on Oct. 31, 2003 and covering the indigenous region of Cape York in Northern Queensland, has already been endorsed at the highest level during a visit by the Australian Prime Minister John Howard in August 2003.
The scale of ODN is vast, arguably making it one of the largest network deployments on earth in terms of landmass covered.
Overall, the scheme's five subsidiary networks will span 600,000 square miles (1.5 million km2), covering five regions in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
The Cape York Digital Network (CYDN) alone covers 60,000 square miles (150,000 km2), which is more than three times the size of Denmark. Yet the population in the region is only around 15,000, based around 16 communities, the vast majority of which are aboriginal.
The remoteness of communities in the region is exacerbated by poor road links. There are virtually no tarmac roads in CYDN's catchment area, so it can take up to two days by four-wheel drive to get to the nearest city, Cairns.
Most roads are completely impassable for several months during the wet season, when the only way out - or in - is by plane, which can cost AU$500 to AU$600. Unsurprisingly, these conditions do little to favour commerce.
The private sector is virtually non-existent in most of these remote indigenous communities and figures for the real unemployment rate here have been quoted as high as 90 percent. Communities typically rely on a single shop for groceries and have to make the long trip to Cairns for anything else. In many cases, people simply do without.
Chairman of the ODN Kevin Fong recently stated the compelling case for using broadband to connect these indigenous populations to the outside world: "We see the network as a tool for the future.
"It has real potential to change people's lives by creating opportunities for business and communication and providing an unquestionable presence for these communities in the eyes of decision makers and their administrations.
"At last, the tyranny of distance and isolation can be defeated for our people."
Obvious examples of the potential benefits of "broadband in the bush" include giving communities better access to education through online courses and seminars; using video-conferencing as a way of cutting the time and cost involved in travel; and promoting aboriginal culture and commerce.
While the argument for broadband was fairly clear-cut, the choice of technology for its delivery was less obvious.
Philip Dutchak, ODN's national project manager, says: "Because of the enormous distances involved, we started out thinking about satellite - but this eventually led to a landline solution.
"If you have a farm with no landlines then you would put up a satellite dish but when you are talking about hundreds or even thousands of people in a community, satellite does not work well for broadband. Latency and transponder costs are just the start of one's problems.
"In addition, while most established aboriginal communities have phone lines, provided by the Australian telephone company Telstra, household penetration rates for remote indigenous people are critically low - something ODN is addressing through its partnership with Telstra."
This gives each community access to high-speed Internet, voice and video services across 512 kbps of available managed IP bandwidth, expandable to 1 Mbps.
In most communities, facilities are scattered across a number of buildings and equipment is linked using Cisco Aironet® 350 Series Access Points and Cisco Aironet 350 Series Wireless Bridges, allowing the network to adapt to the lifestyle of the community and provide added flexibility and mobility to the community regardless of physical location.
ODN's Tanami Network, in the Northern Territory, started remote videoconferencing in the early 1990s and has proved the effectiveness of the technology in remote indigenous locations.
Not only has education been delivered into the communities, but universities have also been able to access the traditional knowledge of local indigenous people, who have appeared as guest lecturers.
Meanwhile there is anecdotal evidence that Cape York may be seeing an increase in foreign visitors since CYDN's owner, the Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation, created a Website with information about the region.
"There has been a bit of a 'wow' factor about videoconferencing technology but the actual use of the network is a much longer-term proposition," says Dutchak.
"While we can tick all the boxes saying people are excited about it, the main job ahead is in creating value and encouraging business activity, with the network underpinning the information and communications requirements of transactions and commerce in the regions.
"In telecommunications terms, ODN operates in loss-making areas. Broadband offers a chance for aboriginal communities to develop business and distribute that business to new markets throughout Australia and the world.
"We're looking to create and open up new markets that may lead to personal and community wealth."
Cisco Queensland manager John Winters adds: "ODN is a tremendously exciting project - with the potential to bring some of the world's most remote peoples into the heart of the digital society."
Jason Deign is a freelance writer based in Barcelona, Spain.
Most Recent NewsHow The Internet Is Preserving Korea's Cultural Heritage
By Amy Cortese 5/21/2013
Why Power Companies are Delving into Data
By Jason Deign 5/20/2013
Senior Executives Say Cloud-Based Collaboration Leads to Higher Business Performance