The Federal Government has axed plans to build a broadband network for vocational education and training institutions, slating $80 million in savings over three years.
The Vocational Education Broadband Network, first announced in 2009 as a response to the 2020 Summit, would provide a private fibre backbone network that, like higher education service provider AARNet, would primarily bypass the internet for internal communications between institutions. The network would also allow institutions to share applications, although it would not provide internet access as AARNet does to research institutions and universities.
[See the complete coverage of ICT spending in Computerworld Australia's Federal Budget 2011 section]
The network was slated to cost about $70 million, with a further $10 million to be put toward training for use of the network, but put to tender in the latter half of last year, the government axed funding for the project citing duplication with the National Broadband Network (NBN).
The project, initially slated to cost $81.9 million, received a $40.5 million commitment during the 2008-2009 budget, with a further $25.7 million allocated during the 2009-2010 financial year and between $15.6 million and $34.4 million during 2010-2011. The project was not mentioned in last year’s budget, however, and it is unclear how much of the allocated money had been spent on the doomed project.
According to 2011-2012 federal budget papers, the government would terminate all future funding for the broadband network, yielding $78.4 million in savings over three years, including $34.4 million unspent from the 2010-2011 fiscal period.
The vocational network was one of two ICT projects axed in this year’s project, with the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy also scrapping its scheme to provide grants to ISP for voluntarily implementing filters.
Group manager for the federal education department’s Schools Teaching, Students and Digital Education Revolution Group, Evan Arthur, said the network would have begun in VET and TAFE colleges and ultimately move to secondary and primary schools. He said department research showed about 75 per cent of government schools continued to operate at less than four megabits per second (Mbps) - a problem he said was exacerbated by elevated fibre access access costs from telcos.
The vast majority of government schools in Victoria and NSW already have access to fibre networks, due in part to the $100 million funding provided in the Government’s DER to roll out higher bandwidth access networks. A total of 47 per cent of Australian schools now have fibre access, followed closely by 42.3 per cent with DSL. The remainder use satellite, wireless, while 1.3 per cent of government schools have stated they currently have no internet access.
The Catholic education sector is also in the process of building its own network, which would involve fibre rolled out to schools where viable, and upgrading of copper networks in other cases.
“The actual cost to the telecommunications provider, when they have fibre lit inside a school with active equipment inside that school... to move from 4Mbps to 100Mbps is not an awful lot, but it is a factor which bears very heavily on the use of communications technologies by Australian schools,” he said at the World Computing Congress 2010 in Brisbane.
The NBN would go part way to solve the speed issue, while also making fibre access near-ubiquitous among Australian schools and upgrading the communications technologies of those who won’t receive fibre under the rollout. It would also help to close the gap between bandwidth speed and use by students, which in NSW is forecast to reach 200TB worth of data downloads per month by the end of the year.
The Federal Government committed more than $800 million in total to schools this year and over forward estimates.
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