Better internet needed to boost regional business

By Alex West, CEO, Swoop
Wednesday, 24 November, 2021

Better internet needed to boost regional business

The great regional migration that has bubbled along quietly for years has finally taken off. City dwellers, feeling locked down and hemmed in by the pandemic, are leaving town in huge numbers. And why not? Alongside the obvious lifestyle benefits, the cost of living is much lower in regional areas. Forced to largely work from home for the past two years, urban-dwellers are no longer hitched to a daily commute into the city. The decision to escape is a simple one. And where population flows, business inevitably follows to serve their needs.

With the exodus creating a pool of high-quality employees in regional areas, new or expanding businesses can offer attractive local employment opportunities and enhanced economic stability that drives growth and infrastructure development. Once-tired towns become thriving communities.

The key factor to completing this ‘circle of life’ is making sure business has the conditions to operate profitably. But one crucial piece of the jigsaw remains missing in many regional areas — reliable telecommunications.

The regional rub

In a digitally dependent world where you can order anything from a pizza to a car online, and where the vast majority of transactions require instantaneous electronic verification, poor connectivity destroys business confidence and undermines a golden opportunity for regional centres to become self-sustainable.

It’s not just an Australian problem. Regional communities across the developed world face similar challenges, as Pekka Lundmark, the President and CEO of communications company Nokia, noted in an article he penned for the World Economic Forum.

“Multiple studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between broadband availability and jobs and GDP growth,” he said. “This squares with what we see all the time at Nokia: nations, cities, even individual communities that invest in connectivity see an uplift in employment, skills, income, entrepreneurship and quality of life.”

Loving the lifestyle, not the dropouts

My family and I left Sydney last year to move to the Hunter Valley, and have been loving the natural outlook, space to roam and friendly rural vibe out here. Not so much the immediate drop in internet reliability, which has impacted me as I’ve attempted to run a company from home and my children as they’ve had to homeschool via videoconferencing at various times and submit assessments online. It does take some of the shine off this wonderful lifestyle.

For retailers running a business and losing sales due to dropouts, I imagine the frustration is even more visceral.

Rural-based primary producers have had to automate their processes to compete globally, and rely on connectivity for things like accurate weather forecasting, transport logistics and tapping into supply chains. Without it, their ability to bring revenue and employment to their communities may be severely curtailed.

Baiting the digital hook

A strong digital platform also baits the hook to lure government departments and NGOs to relocate to regional municipalities, drawn by affordable building leases and lower costs of living for employees. The Department of Regional NSW has this year relocated to the rural town of Armidale, creating 100 new local jobs, while the Victorian town of Ballarat established GovHub, drawing hundreds of formerly city-based staff to the area to work for a number of government departments. Properly supported, these can be pillars of their communities for decades to come.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) gathers steam and connects all of us in ways we’ve never dreamed, and Facebook flags that virtual reality is the next digital frontier, our digital dependence continues to grow and demand faster, more robust coverage. Communities who don’t have it will fall behind.

Time to bridge the divide

It’s time for Australian businesses operating in regional communities to get the telecommunications they need. The NBN is making slow progress into the regions, while major telcos continue to lavish the overwhelming share of their infrastructure on densely populated urban areas. But there are other options. The fixed wireless infrastructure provider that I lead, Swoop, is tackling this issue head-on with a few key advantages over legacy players. Our fixed infrastructure is inexpensive and fast to install, and provides reliable signal within a 10-kilometre radius.

I’ve worked in the telco industry for 20 years — previously for Telstra, Superloop, Vocus and PIPE Networks (now TPG). Having helped those businesses grow into major players, I could see the city–country divide continuing to grow. As a result, we are using a mix of organic growth and acquisitions at Swoop to reach a growing number of regional areas, and receiving a warm welcome wherever we go.

Local governments understand the issues and many are proving very helpful, sharing infrastructure that lowers the barrier to entry for smaller telcos. They’re removing red tape, and emphasising to their communities the existential importance of embracing a digitally connected, self-sustaining future.

Building smart towns is going to be a big job, but it’s clearly crucial — and overdue — to ensure that our growing regional communities can access the same opportunities as their city counterparts.

Alex West is the CEO of Swoop, an ASX-listed Australian fixed wireless infrastructure provider looking to shake up the telecommunications landscape. Alex has over 20 years’ experience in the telco sector and has held senior management roles at Superloop, Vocus Communications and PIPE Networks (now TPG).

Image credit: © Roth

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