One issue over which there is bipartisan agreement in Australia is the need to find new drivers of jobs growth in the wake of the decline in mining investment. Australia can no longer rely on mining to drive growth, so we must invest in innovation to build new industries, while also boosting growth in existing sectors like agriculture.
By reducing the journey between Sydney and Canberra to 40 minutes, high-speed rail would make it attractive for companies to set up in the ACT.
That’s a huge economic challenge. But if we get the policy settings right, it’s also a magnificent opportunity, particularly for rural and regional Australia. Getting the policy settings right means investing in the railways, roads and communications technology that businesses need to thrive.
ACT senator Zed Seselja and Chief Minister Andrew Barr open the Majura Parkway last year.
It has boosted Canberra’s productivity by diverting thousands of trucks away from the CBD. Photo: Graham Tidy
Fibre-based broadband is particularly important. In the 21st century, high-speed broadband can conquer the tyranny of distance, providing new opportunities for economic activity and job creation right across the nation – not just in the capital cities. In the Turnbull government’s first two years in office, total public sector infrastructure investment fell by 20 per cent. Indeed, Bureau of Statistics data released last month shows the value of work conducted for the public sector has been lower in each of the 12 quarters presided over by the Abbott-Turnbull governments than in any of the 21 quarters under the Rudd-Gillard governments after the first Labor budget in 2008. That’s lower in every single quarter.
The cuts have slowed the progress of important road projects around the country, including the upgrades of the Pacific and Bruce highways, which are critical for increased productivity as well as road safety. We also need to achieve progress on the inland rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne, which would expand freight capacity through our nation’s agricultural heartland. Building this project is a no-brainer, which was why the previous Labor federal government invested $600 million upgrading existing track that will form part of the line and allocated $300 million to get the project under way. But despite the government promising in the 2013 and 2016 election campaigns to fast-track inland rail, not a further sleeper has been laid.
Our nation should also invest in the proposed high-speed rail link from Brisbane to Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra, which would turbocharge economic development in regional Australia. High-speed rail would allow people to move between capitals in as little as three hours. It would slash the journey between Sydney and Canberra to 40 minutes, quicker than it takes to travel from Sydney’s suburbs to its CBD. Delivering this project would provide new options for companies to base their operations in Canberra, reducing their costs and providing more jobs in the nation’s capital.
But that’s just Canberra. High-speed rail would be an economic game changer for all communities along its path, including the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Wagga Wagga, the Southern Highlands, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton. High-speed rail would be an economic game changer for all communities along its path. It was this potential that was behind the former Labor government’s 2013 decision to allocate $50 million to a high-speed rail authority to advance planning and begin to secure the corridor. The incoming Coalition government scrapped that funding and, nearly four years later, has yet to outline an alternative approach, despite strong support for high-speed rail on its backbench and in the business community.
The regions also need fibre-to-the-premises broadband, not the copper-based “fraudband” at twice the price and offering half the internet speeds that were promised. We should be using everything technology has to offer to boost growth in rural and regional Australia. In the past four years, Australian internet speeds have tumbled from 30th in the world to 60th. Second-rate broadband is not good enough, particularly for regional Australia.
When governments focus on productivity and capacity building, they can make a real difference to regional economies. For evidence, look no further than Canberra’s Majura Parkway, which was funded in 2011 and opened in April last year. This project has boosted the ACT’s productivity by diverting thousands of trucks around the Canberra CBD, ending the situation where they contributed to traffic congestion by travelling through the centre of town. Such productivity gains are available all over regional Australia.
When governments take a short-term, hands-off approach to nation building, they miss the opportunity to build the foundations for waves of economic future growth.
As John F.
Kennedy said: “Things don’t happen, they are made to happen.”
Anthony Albanese is Labor’s federal spokesman for infrastructure, transport and regional development.
Updated 3 hours ago
A 1993 law intended to build Pennsylvania’s part of the “Information Superhighway” charged phone users higher rates but ended up giving some the internet equivalent of gravel roads — or no road at all. The law, known as Chapter 30, allowed phone companies to raise rates in return for the promise of building infrastructure to give customers broadband access to the internet. Verizon, in particular, promised fiber-optic cables throughout its service area and internet speeds of 45 megabits per second, or Mbps. In 2003, it persuaded the state Public Utility Commission to lower that goal to 1.544 Mbps, the minimum state law requires.
Modernization plans Verizon submitted to the PUC before 2000 said the company would deploy fiber optics and provide at least 45 Mbps internet speed, according to documents on the agency’s website. In 2000, Verizon filed a plan that lowered the speed to 1.544 Mbps. The commission rejected the plan but in 2003 approved an amended plan that allowed the lower target speed. Verizon never promised universal fiber optic and 45 Mbps access, company spokesman Michael Murphy said.
“Verizon makes a qualifying Chapter 30 broadband service available to 100 percent of its retail access lines as required by Chapter 30 and its network modernization plan,” he said. “Depending on the customer’s location, that service could be DSL, Fios Internet, Verizon Wireless 4G LTE broadband or satellite broadband. Each of those services meets Chapter 30’s definition of broadband.”
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as internet access at speeds of at least 25 Mbps on downloads and 3 Mbps on uploads.
“The (state) broadband speed requirements are laughingly out of date,” said James Cawley, a Mechanicsburg lawyer and former public utility commissioner. Verizon and the PUC say the company met its Chapter 30 commitment by the Dec.
30, 2015, deadline, but neither would provide details of how much of its area receives what level of service. FCC data show that while Verizon has built fiber optic through much of Allegheny County, it has extended those lines only to Westmoreland County’s western edge. And to the extent Verizon offers wired internet access in Westmoreland County, it is mainly at speeds below the FCC standard.
Verizon recently turned down $23 million from the FCC’s Connect America Fund that was earmarked to extend broadband service to unserved parts of Pennsylvania. The FCC estimates that about 800,000 state residents lack broadband access, including about 11,000 in Allegheny County and 13,000 in Westmoreland County. Those estimates don’t distinguish between people without any internet access and those who have internet access but at lower speeds.
Verizon spokesman John Johnston confirmed the company has always turned down the Connect America Funds and has always refused to explain its reasons. An obvious one is that the money comes with the requirement to extend service to areas where Verizon doesn’t want to go, Cawley said. During the 22 years of the Chapter 30 program, Verizon extended fiber optics in profitable urban areas while ignoring rural areas, he said. As the 2015 deadline approached, “I figured they would either sell the territory or go to wireless,” Cawley said.
David Ebersole experienced that firsthand. When he moved from Greensburg to Salem Township in 2010, he asked Verizon to transfer his DSL service. The company told him it didn’t provide DSL service to his new neighborhood, but under state law it had to extend service to an area if at least 10 customers asked for it. Ebersole recruited neighbors, filed the request and waited.
Two years later, when Verizon was at the deadline for providing the service, it informed him that it would provide internet access only through a wireless service plan that cost more than DSL and carried penalties for exceeding the data limit. Ebersole filed a complaint. The PUC, with Cawley dissenting, ruled that Verizon had met its legal obligation but had the company give Ebersole and other customers gift cards to offset the higher prices paid for trying the wireless service.
“They never did anything beyond that,” Ebersole said. “They were totally the bad guy in this.”
After the PUC ruling, Ebersole contacted Comcast. A month later, the company agreed it would extend service to his neighborhood, he said. Comcast provides residential broadband service to at least some houses in all but three Westmoreland County municipalities — Donegal, Cook and East Huntingdon — and two in Allegheny County — Marshall and Pine — company spokesman Bob Grove said. The company provides residential access at speeds that range from 10 Mbps to 2 gigabites per second, or Gbps. As a cable company, Comcast is not part of the Chapter 30 program, and it’s generally willing to extend service wherever the cost-benefit ratio justifies it, Grove said.
“For us, it’s been a question of investment,” he said.
Two independent phone companies provide much of the fiber-optic broadband access in Westmoreland County. Both said they see Comcast, rather than Verizon, as a main competitor.
“Verizon won’t serve these areas,” said James Kail, president and CEO of Stahlstown-based LHTC Broadband. The company, formerly known as Laurel Highlands Total Communications, offers fiber-optic broadband in a 175-square-mile area about evenly split between Fayette and Westmoreland counties, he said. As a small carrier, it had until 2008 to offer all customers 1.544 Mbps service.
“Obviously, we’ve gone way beyond that,” Kail said, noting the company currently offers plans from 3 Mbps to 1 Gbps.
“We didn’t really need that incentive to do that,” he said. “We recognized early on that the future was fiber.”
Kail said the FCC report on the unserved areas is mostly talking about areas covered by large companies.
“The underserved areas belong to the big guys,” he said. “That’s who, for the most part, has neglected the rural parts of the states.”
Citizens Fiber, formerly Citizens Telephone Co. of Kecksburg, offers up to 1 Gbps service throughout its 100-square-mile area in the southeastern part of Westmore-land County and is looking to expand, said Zach Cutrell, operations manager. When Congress allowed cable companies to start offering phone service in the 1990s, Mammoth-based Citizens Fiber realized it had to offer cable TV and internet service. It initially built a hybrid of copper lines, coaxial cable and fiber optic.
But when people started streaming movies, the company realized it had to make a change, he said. In November, it finished a project that replaced all of its other lines with fiber optic.
“Fiber is really the future,” he said. “We completely overbuilt our service area.”
Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1218 or