How the NT government wired up remote Aboriginal communities

Bringing reliable broadband to remote areas requires overcoming many obstacles.

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The Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin in the Timor Sea, are home to several remote Aboriginal communities. There are around 2,500 people living on the islands, with 89% of residents being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.

Quality telecommunications infrastructure is crucial to overcoming disadvantage in this area of Australia. “The evolution of telecommunications services will continue, and COVID will keep placing demands on telecommunications that must be met if communities are to have the same opportunities to grow and prosper like the rest of Australia,” says Ewan Perrin, the Northern Territory’s government’s executive director for digital government.

To achieve that, in September 2018, the NT government spent $8.5 million with Vocus to deliver an undersea fibre cable to connect the Tiwi Islands to the national telecommunications network. It would be supplemented with $3.4 million in upgrades to telecommunications infrastructure on the islands as part of a $28 million co-investment program with Telstra. The Vocus link was completed in December 2019 and with Telstra taking up services on the fibre link in mid-2020. The upgraded Telstra infrastructure was completed in December 2020.

So far, three Tiwi Islands communities have benefitted directly from these upgrades. The work included an upgraded trunk radio network on Bathurst and Melville Islands—which are part of the Tiwi Islands—and the installation of equipment to provide much improved broadband services at Pirlangimpi, Milikapiti, and Wurrumiyanga.

Residents are also benefitting from the replacement and upgrade of multiple batteries that provide power to Telstra services. The upgrades provide as many as 24 hours of reserve power in the communities and seven to 10 days of power reserves for the trunk and telecommunications network. The effort earned the Community Program award in the CIO50 Australia awards in November 2021.

Community engagement crucial to success

The Tiwi Islands’ local government has long advocated for improved telecommunications services to the community, Perrin tells Computerworld Australia.

“The need for improved services has been vocalised by the island’s residents over a number of years as a result of major service outages, particularly during the wet season,” Perrin says. The NT government also went to great lengths to advocate for this fibre link, he says. This included making multiple representations to ministers and the cabinet, funding suitable Crown land to establish a cable station in Darwin, and facilitating negotiations between the NT government and Vocus to get the cable landing station established.

“Getting the NT’s voice heard at a national level and with commercially driven providers is a very real challenge. Moving from advocacy to awareness to gaining investment and substantial financial contributions takes these challenges to a whole new level,” Perrin says.

Ongoing monitoring through Telstra’s reporting on outages, regional reporting, and commentary from other sources—including Tiwi Islands’ local government member—will continue to provide intelligence on reliability of services, as well as address the growing sophistication of telecommunications needs from island communities.

The challenges of bringing broadband to remote Australia

Telecommunications in remote areas is not a ‘one size fits all’ model, Perrin says. For this reason, the NT government’s Department of Corporate and Digital Development has built relationships with national and regional telecommunications organisations to deliver flexible infrastructure that is tailored for remote communities.

This has required co-investment with the telecommunications industry to overcome the market failure for remote communities and to fill the gap where NBN satellite services are not an appropriate fit for communities, Perrin says. “An array of innovative telecommunications solutions has been created or are in progress, from mobile hotspots and community Wi-Fi to fibre connectivity.”

Perrin says that there are obvious challenges of negotiating large scale, multi-year infrastructure programs with major vendors that are usually in competition. “As a government with modest resources, success demanded an unwavering focus on the ultimate community benefit and extraordinary persistence in commercial negotiation, community consultation, resolving technical challenges, and maintaining the energy and commitment to all stakeholders. [But] the reward is worth the effort as the NT government gradually brings in more digital capability and connectedness to some of the most disadvantaged and remote communities in Australia,” he says.

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