Darwin should be a data centre powerhouse: report

A Northern Territory government commission also recommends a digital infrastructure strategy for the region to grow the ICT and space industries and the skills needed to support them.

The Darwin waterfront in NT at dusk [Sky is purple, water reflects the buildings]
clintharry / Getty Images

The Northern Territory can benefit from the digital and space industries according to the final report from the Territory Economic Reconstruction Commission. In particular, the report sees Darwin’s geographic location as an opportunity to create a data centre industry to supply digital services to Asia. It has already a high-speed terabit network under development and new subsea cable links that can accelerate the development of data centres.

The report states that “data centres need to be considered as critical utilities, similar to roads and transport systems, which underpin general economic activity”. And the report argues that there has to be investment both in disruptive technologies and in skilling workers to respond to a growing demand for ICT professionals.

How the Northern Territory can benefit from digital industry

To compete in the digital age requires a series of mindset changes in how organisations operate and how the digital industry enables this, the report says.

The region needs to be ready for a 2.9% annual jobs growth in the ICT sector based on pre-COVID-19 forecasts of the Digital Territory Strategy.

Companies need to recognise, assess, and take action early on upcoming disruptions such as robotics, drones, 3D printing, AI, automation, data analytics, and blockchain as well as deliver superior service to early adopters.

A “growing and diverse” local industry can mature by focusing on trends such as big data analytics through high-performance computing and services export. “Continuing to grow and mature the local digital industry including broadening service offerings away from a government services focus will underpin productivity improvements in other sectors and help to improve service delivery and economic participation, especially in regional and remote areas,” the report says.

The report makes two recommendations on digital-industry strategy:

  • Undertaking master planning of digital precincts.
  • Pursue strategic partnerships to grow the industry in the territory.

To do the master planning, the report suggests the Northern Territory would need to actively determine strategic directions for the digital economy in the territory, using evidence to identify niche areas. It would need to identify digital service growth areas in the Asia-Pacific region and develop regional service clusters around existing strategic assets in Central Australia. The territory would need to determine an optimal industry capability mix to develop the opportunities, as well as target national and global companies to help fill local industry gaps. It would also need to secure strategic anchor tenants to attract more companies and deepen industry capabilities.

To pursue strategic partnerships, the report suggests focusing on leading digital thinkers, such as CSIRO and the Australian Cyber Security Centre, looking for niches that leverage the territory’s natural advantages.

The report also notes inadequate digital availability in many parts of the Nothern Territory, resulting in lost opportunities for economic and social progress. Access to digital infrastructure is critical to improve economic, social, health and educational outcomes. “Australia’s high-capacity telecommunication connection lines are an arc that stretches from Brisbane to Perth. Building the territory’s connectivity should continue to be aggressively pursued,” the report says. “Through necessity, the territory government has been co-investing over a number of years to try and address significant infrastructure gaps.” The report recommends an accelerated expansion of telecommunications services to increase digital connectivity beyond urban areas.

Developing a skilled workforce of the future

The Northern Territory must plan for the workforce of the future now, in partnership with schools, universities, and the skilling industry to create new workforce solutions. The report recognises that workforce from outside the territory will still be needed in peak demand periods and that improvements must continue to be made to remote Aboriginal education.

The report notes the role that Charles Darwin University (CDU) plays for the Northern Territory. “CDU’s challenge is to evolve into a strong research and learning institution for the territory and the region. It is time to go beyond delivery of higher education and vocational education and training and see itself as an economic enabler. To do this, CDU needs to be more outward focused and proactive in response to the rapidly changing global economy and society,” the report says.

How the Northern Territory can benefit from the space industry

The report says that the space industry is fundamental to the digital advancements of the Northern Territory as it provides communication, remote sensing, positioning, and management of key industries such as mining and agriculture.

Accelerating the digital transformation of space technology across the region can enhance growth throughout the economy. There is also a connection between digital and space industries as digital relies on space technology to advance through data capture. The report finds that the territory’s geographical location and climate are ideal for ground stations and for rocket and high-altitude pseudo-satellites (HAPS) launches.

The territory government has already identified space as a priority, the report notes, establishing in 2020 a memorandum of understading with the Australian Space Agency “outlining the territory’s strength in space launch, ground station, HAPS, and downstream space industries operations. Continuing to build on the territory’s strong industry foundations and climatic and geographical advantages will provide growth opportunities and assist to improve the digital transformation of the territory,” the report says.

In Australia, the space economy was estimated to be worth $5.1 billion in 2018-19, and before COVID-19 was expected to grow 7.1% annually through 2023–24.

The report recommends positioning the Top End—the northernmost section of the Northern Territory—as the location for equatorial launch services, research and development, and collaboration with Australian and international rocket launch companies, launch service providers, satellite developers, and payload aggregators to establish a thriving launch-services ecosystem in the Top End.

It also recommends positioning Alice Springs as the ‘global headquarters for HAPS launch, research, and development’. Other recommendations included to support development of ground station precincts and leverage space technology for Northern Territory industries.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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