Revisiting Mackay Online

Steven Pace

Abstract


Introduction

In July 1997, the Mackay campus of Central Queensland University hosted a conference with the theme Regional Australia: Visions of Mackay. It was the first academic conference to be held at the young campus, and its aim was to provide an opportunity for academics, business people, government officials, and other interested parties to discuss their visions for the development of Mackay, a regional community of 75,000 people situated on the Central Queensland coast (Danaher). I delivered a presentation at that conference and authored a chapter in the book that emerged from its proceedings. The chapter entitled “Mackay Online” explored the potential impact that the Internet could have on the Mackay region, particularly in the areas of regional business, education, health, and entertainment (Pace). Two decades later, how does the reality compare with that vision?

Broadband Blues

At the time of the Visions of Mackay conference, public commercial use of the Internet was in its infancy. Many Internet services and technologies that users take for granted today were uncommon or non-existent then. Examples include online video, video-conferencing, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), blogs, social media, peer-to-peer file sharing, payment gateways, content management systems, wireless data communications, smartphones, mobile applications, and tablet computers. In 1997, most users connected to the Internet using slow dial-up modems with speeds ranging from 28.8 Kbps to 33.6 Kbps. 56 Kbps modems had just become available. Lamenting these slow data transmission speeds, I looked forward to a time when widespread availability of high-bandwidth networks would allow the Internet’s services to “expand to include electronic commerce, home entertainment and desktop video-conferencing” (Pace 103). Although that future eventually arrived, I incorrectly anticipated how it would arrive.

In 1997, Optus and Telstra were engaged in the rollout of hybrid fibre coaxial (HFC) networks in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane for the Optus Vision and Foxtel pay TV services (Meredith). These HFC networks had a large amount of unused bandwidth, which both Telstra and Optus planned to use to provide broadband Internet services. Telstra's Big Pond Cable broadband service was already available to approximately one million households in Sydney and Melbourne (Taylor), and Optus was considering extending its cable network into regional Australia through partnerships with smaller regional telecommunications companies (Lewis). These promising developments seemed to point the way forward to a future high-bandwidth network, but that was not the case. A short time after the Visions of Mackay conference, Telstra and Optus ceased the rollout of their HFC networks in response to the invention of Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL), a technology that increases the bandwidth of copper wire and enables Internet connections of up to 6 Mbps over the existing phone network. ADSL was significantly faster than a dial-up service, it was broadly available to homes and businesses across the country, and it did not require enormous investment in infrastructure. However, ADSL could not offer speeds anywhere near the 27 Mbps of the HFC networks. When it came to broadband provision, Australia seemed destined to continue playing catch-up with the rest of the world. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in 2009 Australia ranked 18th in the world for broadband penetration, with 24.1 percent of Australians having a fixed-line broadband subscription. Statistics like these eventually prompted the federal government to commit to the deployment of a National Broadband Network (NBN). In 2009, the Kevin Rudd Government announced that the NBN would combine fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), fixed wireless, and satellite technologies to deliver Internet speeds of up to 100 Mbps to 90 percent of Australian homes, schools, and workplaces (Rudd).

The rollout of the NBN in Mackay commenced in 2013 and continued, suburb by suburb, until its completion in 2017 (Frost, “Mackay”; Garvey). The rollout was anything but smooth. After a change of government in 2013, the NBN was redesigned to reduce costs. A mixed copper/optical technology known as fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) replaced FTTP as the preferred approach for providing most NBN connections. The resulting connection speeds were significantly slower than the 100 Mbps that was originally proposed. Many Mackay premises could only achieve a maximum speed of 40 Mbps, which led to some overcharging by Internet service providers, and subsequent compensation for failing to deliver services they had promised (“Optus”). Some Mackay residents even complained that their new NBN connections were slower than their former ADSL connections. NBN Co representatives claimed that the problems were due to “service providers not buying enough space in the network to provide the service they had promised to customers” (“Telcos”). Unsurprisingly, the number of complaints about the NBN that were lodged with the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman skyrocketed during the last six months of 2017. Queensland complaints increased by approximately 40 percent when compared with the same period during the previous year (“Qld”).

Despite the challenges presented by infrastructure limitations, the rollout of the NBN was a boost for the Mackay region. For some rural residents, it meant having reliable Internet access for the first time. Frost, for example, reports on the experiences of a Mackay couple who could not get an ADSL service at their rural home because it was too far away from the nearest telephone exchange. Unreliable 3G mobile broadband was the only option for operating their air-conditioning business. All of that changed with the arrival of the NBN. “It’s so fast we can run a number of things at the same time”, the couple reported (“NBN”).

Networking the Nation

One factor that contributed to the uptake of Internet services in the Mackay region after the Visions of Mackay conference was the Australian Government’s Networking the Nation (NTN) program. When the national telecommunications carrier Telstra was partially privatised in 1997, and further sold in 1999, proceeds from the sale were used to fund an ambitious communications infrastructure program named Networking the Nation (Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts). The program funded projects that improved the availability, accessibility, affordability, and use of communications facilities and services throughout regional Australia. Eligibility for funding was limited to not-for-profit organisations, including local councils, regional development organisations, community groups, local government associations, and state and territory governments.

In 1998, the Mackay region received $930,000 in Networking the Nation funding for Mackay Regionlink, a project that aimed to provide equitable community access to online services, skills development for local residents, an affordable online presence for local business and community organisations, and increased external awareness of the Mackay region (Jewell et al.). One element of the project was a training program that provided basic Internet skills to 2,168 people across the region over a period of two years. A second element of the project involved the establishment of 20 public Internet access centres in locations throughout the region, such as libraries, community centres, and tourist information centres. The centres provided free Internet access to users and encouraged local participation and skill development. More than 9,200 users were recorded in these centres during the first year of the project, and the facilities remained active until 2006. A third element of the project was a regional web portal that provided a free easily-updated online presence for community organisations. The project aimed to have every business and community group in the Mackay region represented on the website, with hosting fees for the business web pages funding its ongoing operation and development. More than 6,000 organisations were listed on the site, and the project remained financially viable until 2005.

The availability, affordability and use of communications facilities and services in Mackay increased significantly during the period of the Regionlink project. Changes in technology, services, markets, competition, and many other factors contributed to this increase, so it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which Mackay Regionlink fostered those outcomes. However, the large number of people who participated in the Regionlink training program and made use of the public Internet access centres, suggests that the project had a positive influence on digital literacy in the Mackay region.

The Impact on Business

The Internet has transformed regional business for both consumers and business owners alike since the Visions of Mackay conference. When Mackay residents made a purchase in 1997, their choice of suppliers was limited to a few local businesses. Today they can shop online in a global market. Security concerns were initially a major obstacle to the growth of electronic commerce. Consumers were slow to adopt the Internet as a place for doing business, fearing that their credit card details would be vulnerable to hackers once they were placed online. After observing the efforts that finance and software companies were making to eliminate those obstacles, I anticipated that it would only be a matter of time before online transactions became commonplace:

Consumers seeking a particular product will be able to quickly find the names of suitable suppliers around the world, compare their prices, and place an order with the one that can deliver the product at the cheapest price. (Pace 106)

This expectation was soon fulfilled by the arrival of online payment systems such as PayPal in 1998, and online shopping services such as eBay in 1997. eBay is a global online auction and shopping website where individuals and businesses buy and sell goods and services worldwide. The eBay service is free to use for buyers, but sellers are charged modest fees when they make a sale. It exemplifies the notion of “friction-free capitalism” articulated by Gates (157).

In 1997, regional Australian business owners were largely sceptical about the potential benefits the Internet could bring to their businesses. Only 11 percent of Australian businesses had some form of web presence, and less than 35 percent of those early adopters felt that their website was significant to their business (Department of Industry, Science and Tourism). Anticipating the significant opportunities that the Internet offered Mackay businesses to compete in new markets, I recommended that they work “towards the goal of providing products and services that meet the needs of international consumers as well as local ones” (107). In the two decades that have passed since that time, many Mackay businesses have been doing just that. One prime example is Big on Shoes (bigonshoes.com.au), a retailer of ladies’ shoes from sizes five to fifteen (Plane). Big on Shoes has physical shopfronts in Mackay and Moranbah, an online store that has been operating since 2009, and more than 12,000 followers on Facebook. This speciality store caters for women who have traditionally been unable to find shoes in their size. As the store’s customer base has grown within Australia and internationally, an unexpected transgender market has also emerged. In 2018 Big on Shoes was one of 30 regional businesses featured in the first Facebook and Instagram Annual Gift Guide, and it continues to build on its strengths (Cureton).

The Impact on Health

The growth of the Internet has improved the availability of specialist health services for people in the Mackay region. Traditionally, access to surgical services in Mackay has been much more limited than in metropolitan areas because of the shortage of specialists willing to practise in regional areas (Green). In 2003, a senior informant from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons bluntly described the Central Queensland region from Mackay to Gladstone as “a black hole in terms of surgery” (Birrell et al. 15). In 1997 I anticipated that, although the Internet would never completely replace a visit to a local doctor or hospital, it would provide tools that improve the availability of specialist medical services for people living in regional areas. Using these tools, doctors would be able to “analyse medical images captured from patients living in remote locations” and “diagnose patients at a distance” (Pace 108).

These expectations have been realised in the form of Queensland Health’s Telehealth initiative, which permits medical specialists in Brisbane and Townsville to conduct consultations with patients at the Mackay Base Hospital using video-conference technology. Telehealth reduces the need for patients to travel for specialist advice, and it provides health professionals with access to peer support. Averill (7), for example, reports on the experience of a breast cancer patient at the Mackay Base Hospital who was able to participate in a drug trial with a Townsville oncologist through the Telehealth network. Mackay health professionals organised the patient’s scans, administered blood tests, and checked her lymph nodes, blood pressure and weight. Townsville health professionals then used this information to advise the Mackay team about her ongoing treatment. The patient expressed appreciation that the service allowed her to avoid the lengthy round-trip to Townsville. Prior to being offered the Telehealth option, she had refused to participate in the trial because “the trip was just too much of a stumbling block” (Averill 7).

The Impact on Media and Entertainment

The field of media and entertainment is another aspect of regional life that has been reshaped by the Internet since the Visions of Mackay conference. Most of these changes have been equally apparent in both regional and metropolitan areas. Over the past decade, the way individuals consume media has been transformed by new online services offering user-generated video, video-on-demand, and catch-up TV. These developments were among the changes I anticipated in 1997:

The convergence of television and the Internet will stimulate the creation of new services such as video-on-demand. Today television is a synchronous media—programs are usually viewed while they are being broadcast. When high-quality video can be transmitted over the information superhighway, users will be able to watch what they want, when and where they like. […] Newly released movies will continue to be rented, but probably not from stores. Instead, consumers will shop on the information superhighway for movies that can be delivered on demand.

In the mid-2000s, free online video-sharing services such as YouTube and Vimeo began to emerge. These websites allow users to freely upload, view, share, comment on, and curate online videos. Subscription-based streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have also become increasingly popular since that time. These services offer online streaming of a library of films and television programs for a fee of less than 20 dollars per month. Computers, smart TVs, Blu-ray players, game consoles, mobile phones, tablets, and other devices provide a multitude of ways of accessing streaming services. Some of these devices cost less than 100 dollars, while higher-end electronic devices include the capability as a bundled feature. Netflix became available in Mackay at the time of its Australian launch in 2015. The growth of streaming services greatly reduced the demand for video rental shops in the region, and all closed down as a result. The last remaining video rental store in Mackay closed its doors in 2018 after trading for 26 years (“Last”).

Some of the most dramatic transformations that have occurred the field of media and entertainment were not anticipated in 1997. The rise of mobile technology, including wireless data communications, smartphones, mobile applications, and tablet computers, was largely unforeseen at that time. Some Internet luminaries such as Vinton Cerf expected that mobile access to the Internet via laptop computers would become commonplace (Lange), but this view did not encompass the evolution of smartphones, and it was not widely held. Similarly, the rise of social media services and the impact they have had on the way people share content and communicate was generally unexpected. In some respects, these phenomena resemble the Black Swan events described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (xvii)—surprising events with a major effect that are often inappropriately rationalised after the fact. They remind us of how difficult it is to predict the future media landscape by extrapolating from things we know, while failing to take into consideration what we do not know.

The Challenge for Mackay

In 1997, when exploring the potential impact that the Internet could have on the Mackay region, I identified a special challenge that the community faced if it wanted to be competitive in this new environment:

The region has traditionally prospered from industries that control physical resources such as coal, sugar and tourism, but over the last two decades there has been a global ‘shift away from physical assets and towards information as the principal driver of wealth creation’ (Petre and Harrington 1996). The risk for Mackay is that its residents may be inclined to believe that wealth can only be created by means of industries that control physical assets. The community must realise that its value-added information is at least as precious as its abundant natural resources. (110)

The Mackay region has not responded well to this challenge, as evidenced by measures such as the Knowledge City Index (KCI), a collection of six indicators that assess how well a city is positioned to grow and advance in today’s technology-driven, knowledge-based economy. A 2017 study used the KCI to conduct a comparative analysis of 25 Australian cities (Pratchett, Hu, Walsh, and Tuli). Mackay rated reasonably well in the areas of Income and Digital Access. But the city’s ratings were “very limited across all the other measures of the KCI”: Knowledge Capacity, Knowledge Mobility, Knowledge Industries and Smart Work (44).

The need to be competitive in a technology-driven, knowledge-based economy is likely to become even more pressing in the years ahead. The 2017 World Energy Outlook Report estimated that China’s coal use is likely to have peaked in 2013 amid a rapid shift toward renewable energy, which means that demand for Mackay’s coal will continue to decline (International Energy Agency). The sugar industry is in crisis, finding itself unable to diversify its revenue base or increase production enough to offset falling global sugar prices (Rynne). The region’s biggest tourism drawcard, the Great Barrier Reef, continues to be degraded by mass coral bleaching events and ongoing threats posed by climate change and poor water quality (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority). All of these developments have disturbing implications for Mackay’s regional economy and its reliance on coal, sugar, and tourism. Diversifying the local economy through the introduction of new knowledge industries would be one way of preparing the Mackay region for the impact of new technologies and the economic challenges that lie ahead.

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Keywords


Internet; Mackay; Regional



Copyright (c) 2019 Steven Pace

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