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Broadband in the Burbs: NBN infrastructure, spectrum politics and the digital home

journal contribution
posted on 2011-01-01, 00:00 authored by T Apperley, B Nansen, M Arnold, R Wilken
The convergence of suburban homes and digital media and communications technologies is set to undergo a major shift as next-generation broadband infrastructures are installed. Embodied in the Australian Government’s National Broadband Network (NBN) and the delivery of fibre-optic cable to the front door of every suburban home, is an anticipated future of digital living that will transform the landscape and experience of suburban life. Drawing from our research, and from industry, policy and media documents, we map some scenarios of the NBN rollout in its early stages to show that this imaginary of seamless broadband in the suburbs and the transformation of digital homes it anticipates is challenged by local cultural and material geographies, which we describe as a politics of spectrum.

The universal implementation of policy across Australia faces a considerable challenge in dealing with Australia’s physical environment. Geography has always had a major impact on communications technologies and services in Australia, and a major impetus of building a national broadband network has been to overcome the “tyranny of distance” experienced by people in many remote, regional and suburban areas. In 2009 the minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE), Stephen Conroy, announced that with the Government’s NBN policy “every person and business in Australia, no-matter where they are located, will have access to affordable, fast broadband at their fingertips” (Conroy). This ambition to digitally connect and include imagines the NBN as the solution to the current patchwork of connectivity and Internet speeds experienced across the country (ACCAN). Overcoming geographic difference and providing fast, universal and equitable digital access is to be realised through an open access broadband network built by the newly established NBN Co. Limited, jointly owned by the Government and the private sector at a cost estimated at $43 billion over eight years. In the main this network will depend upon fibre-optics reaching over 90% of the population, and achieving download speeds of up to 100 Mbit/s. The remaining population, mostly living in rural and remote areas, will receive wireless and satellite connections providing speeds of 12 Mbit/s (Conroy).

Differential implementation in relation to comparisons of urban and remote populations is thus already embedded in the policy, yet distance is not the only characteristic of Australia’s material geographies that will shape the physical implementation of the NBN and create a varied spectrum of the experience of broadband. Instead, in this article we examine the uneven experience of broadband we may see occurring within suburban regions; places in which enhanced and collective participation in the digital economy relies upon the provision of faster transmission speeds and the delivery of fibre “the last mile” to each and every premise.

The crucial platform for delivering broadband to the ’burbs is the digital home. The notion of the connected or smart or digital home has been around in different guises for a number of decades (e.g. Edwards et al.), and received wide press coverage in the 1990s (e.g. Howard). It has since been concretised in the wake of the NBN as telecommunications companies struggle to envision a viable “next step” in broadband consumption. Novel to the NBN imaginary of the digital home is a shift from thinking about the digital home in terms of consumer electronics and interoperable or automatic devices, based on shared standards or home networking, to addressing the home as a platform embedded within the economy. The digital home is imagined as an integral part of a network of digital living with seamless transitions between home, office, supermarket, school, and hospital. In the imaginary of the NBN, the digital home becomes a vital connection in the growing digital economy.



M/C journal






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Queensland University of Technology


Brisbane, Qld.





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CN.1 Other journal article

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2011, Tom Apperley, Bjorn Nansen, Michael Arnold, Rowan Wilken

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