The term ‘broadband’ has had different meanings. It originally referred to the radiation of electromagnetic energy across a broad, continuous band of frequencies where multiple independent signals are carried on discrete channels within the total bandwidth. This contrasts with ‘narrowband’, where the signal occupies almost the whole transmission channel.
Early cable telegraph and telephone systems were narrowband, carrying just one signal, or one in each direction. The term ‘broadband’ was used freely to describe successive new generations of cable and later wireless technology that allowed multiple signals to be carried. In the mid-1960s, a US government policy document argued that ‘the development of transistorised, broadband cables should be aggressively pushed in the US as well as abroad’. In Australia, the Overseas Telecommunications Commission’s 1974 annual report said, ‘submarine cables continue to be economically competitive with satellite for the provision of broadband international capacity’, particularly on heavily trafficked routes. A related term, ‘wideband’, also has different meanings in different contexts.
In the late 1990s, broadband became the term applied to a new form of internet access service that progressively overtook ‘dial-up’ access. Broadband services offered higher data rates than dial-up and were ‘always on’. The higher data rates improved users’ experience when accessing content like music, images and video. Statistics about broadband take-up were first published by the OECD in the early 2000s. It defined broadband as a service offering download data rates greater than 256 kilobit per second, although some member countries chose different measures. In the late 1980s, the International Telecommunications Union’s standard-setting agency had specified that a ‘broadband service’ required channels supporting data rates above 1.5 or 2 megabit per second. The Australian Bureau of Statistics effectively adopts the OECD definition: ‘an “always on” internet connection with an access data rate of 256 kilobit per second or higher’.
The scale and speed of investment in broadband infrastructure became an important test of newly liberalised telecommunications markets in the 2000s. Australia had just 1.3 broadband subscribers per 100 people in June 2002—about one-third of the OECD average and well be- hind market leaders Korea (20.3) and Canada (10.3). In 2004, the OECD Council called on its members to assist the expansion of broadband markets, promote efficient and innovative supply arrangements, and encourage effective use of broadband services. Australia crept ahead of the OECD average (13.6 to 13.4) the following year.
At the 2007 election, the Labor opposition’s commitment to upgrade much of the country’s fixed line access network became an important difference between the major political parties. In office, Labor found Telstra reluctant to cooperate, and announced a much bigger plan for a National Broadband Network (NBN) in 2009. Initially costed at around $43 billion, this would be a wholesale-only network, built and operated by a new state-owned enterprise. An optical fibre connection would be installed to more than 90 per cent of Australian households and business premises, and a terrestrial wireless or satellite service to the rest. The same year, the US Federal Communications Commission declared broadband to be ‘the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century ... Until recently, not having broadband was an inconvenience. Now, broadband is essential to opportunity and citizenship.’
Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises NBN was a decisive factor convincing some independent MPs to support a minority Labor government after the 2010 election. While the Coalition strongly criticised Labor’s policy, it eventually modified its opposition and took to the 2013 election a cut-down version, promising less impressive download and upload data rates, but delivering the improvements more quickly and cheaply.
While the policy debate about fixed line broadband raged, Australians increasingly took up mobile broadband services. At the end of 2008, one-fifth of broadband subscribers were mobile subscribers. That grew to more than half in June 2013. By then, Australia’s fixed broadband penetration of 25.6 subscribers per 100 inhabitants was again just behind the OECD average, but in mobile broadband penetration, at 114.0 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, Australia led the 34 OECD countries.
REF: P. Fletcher, Wired Brown Land? (2009).