Municipal Broadband

2013-14

Research on this project in 2013 focused on tracking and analysing a recent upsurge of local government and community investment in public Wi-Fi networks in Australia, placing that investment in historical, policy and theoretical contexts. Australian local authorities showed little interest in public Wi-Fi provision during the international development boom of that technology in the early 2000s, and Australia was largely bypassed by the policy and scholarly debates of this period. Recent proposals and experiments by local government authorities, public transport providers and civil society organisations suggest the gap between Australia and the rest of the world is closing. This project has been analysing the dynamic technological, social and policy environments in which this accelerated interest in public Wi-Fi provision is occurring. Significant influences include the uptake and increasing capability of mobile devices, the declining costs and technical complexity of wireless equipment, moves to engineer seamless access to networks, new strategic alliances between commercial and public providers, and the increasing use of on-line environments for local services and civic engagement. The once fractious relationship between public and commercial wireless providers is now increasingly cooperative, as telcos seek to offload data to municipal networks to ease congestion of 3G and 4G networks.

Field research has also revealed the more contingent and local factors that are shaping investment in different parts of Australia. Plans for a national broadband network announced in 2004, with iterations by successive Commonwealth governments, saw local experimentation with fixed and wireless broadband, and with local telecommunications provision generally, tail off. However, the distant horizon of the National Broadband Network rollout, particularly for some rural cities, has raised concerns whether local economic and social life will be negatively impacted. In this light, some local authorities and civic groups are promoting local public Wi-Fi as a response to what they perceive as a new digital and economic divide. Project researchers have conducted fieldwork in two regional cities, Hamilton, Victoria and Goulburn, New South Wales, to document moves for community-level provision. Project researchers are also working with the City of Melbourne to document and evaluate a public Wi-Fi trial there commencing in early 2014. Other funding sources, particularly the Australian Research Council, will be sought to fund further work on the project.

Project researchers have developed international links and comparative research perspectives through conference presentations in Barcelona and London, and consultations with local officials and community broadband providers in the United Kingdom.

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