Introduction: Broadband is described as essential civic infrastructure of the twenty-first century, yet Australian local authorities have taken few initiatives to provide it as a local public good, similar to physical facilities and community services. This situation contrasts with local initiatives in many other countries. In Europe and North America, for example, city governments are routinely involved in broadband provision, as a freely available public good, through subsidised schemes, or on a fully commercial basis. Internationally, the involvement of municipal authorities in providing fixed line or wireless broadband within their jurisdictions has been vigorously debated (Hauge et al. 2008). In Australia, the idea that digital inclusion might also include provision of local public broadband has barely registered in national broadband debates.
Signs of change, though, can be seen in the provision of WiFi on public transport (Cities of Brisbane, Adelaide), in city parks (Brisbane), and in retail strips (City of Darebin, inner Melbourne). Adelaide is currently investigating public WiFi provision across its central business district. Australians who can afford to travel internationally are becoming accustomed to the amenity of public WiFi. This is likely to translate into consumer or voter demand for local provision in Australia, a country with relatively high broadband and data costs. Indeed, the promise of ‘free’ WiFi now features in local government election platforms. However, municipal initiatives in this field have a mixed record in some countries. While the association of local-level physical and digital infrastructure seems increasingly intuitive to some, it has proven difficult to achieve in political, policy and commercial terms.
Dr Ian McShane is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University. The paper was presented at the Local Government Research Forum, Adelaide, 6 June 2013.