Any regional town would be thrilled to test a new, blazing fast fibre-to-the-home network ahead of the rest of Australia. When that chance came for Townsville, there was definitely excitement but the road to high speed broadband has had many bumps.
It’s fair to say the Queensland city was unprepared for the changes the National Broadband Network (NBN) would bring; a point exacerbated by the fact that the council didn’t know it had been picked as a test site until the company building the $36 billion network sent out a media release in March last year.
According to senior economic development officer, Doug Hayward, the experience since then has been filled with uncertainty.
“Being a first release site is a whole new world – we needed to understand ourselves how do we deal with this thing,” he says. “There are a whole range of things we haven’t come across before and as a result, it’s led us to rethink how we do certain things.”
One decision – the location of the site – had also been taken out of the town’s hands, a point pressed by the region’s federal representative, Liberal senator Ian McDonald. Hayward says the council would have chosen the town’s central business district for an initial fibre rollout, but NBN Co ultimately earmarked 3100 premises in the suburbs of Mundingburra and Aitkenvale three kilometres out of the CBD.
According to the wholesaler, the site was chosen as a test case for an area network planners and engineers expected to see many times as the network is progressively rolled across Australia over the next eight years.
Despite initial consternation, it’s a choice Hayward and the council have come to understand and respect.
“[We] understand that the imperatives for early release sites are not so much about meeting community aspirations for rollout locations but are more about testing design and technology,” he admits. “We are comfortable with this and look forward to what might be seen as our preferred sites being connected as a part of the rollout schedule.”
The council has since been keen to embrace the decision and while Hayward says there have been some inevitable complaints, he is adamant the community are throwing their support behind the rollout.
The road since hasn’t been any easier; development approvals, mapping with the utmost detail and the getting property databases ready for NBN Co and contractor Ergon Energy were all facing the council head-on.
A year on, Hayward believes he’s sorted out the initial communications issues first felt with NBN Co. He meets “every few weeks” with the wholesaler to catch up on the rollout and negotiate closely on the role the council can play. It has since been able to reallocate resources in order to develop business strategies in line with taking full advantage of what the network purports to offer.
With NBN Co expecting to pass 6000 homes a day at the peak of the national construction phase, Townsville’s experience is unlikely to be replicated. The level of communication is likely to be further diminished, an aspect some councils have already aired concerns about.
However, with the teething problems come the benefits, says Hayward.
“The NBN is needed across the community generally,” he said. “It’s a means to facilitate the growth of Townsville into new areas and foster growth in existing industries.”
“This community can take its place alongside any other community across the country and across the world.”
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