The Promise and Possibility of the Kangaroo Valley Broadband Network (KVBN)

On Aug 4 the KVBN crowdfunding campaign ends. It is around the 30th biggest of the pozible crowdfunding campaigns in Australia and is the first such campaign to support a community broadband solution. Communities that are badly served by nationally managed broadband solutions are looking carefully at the model to devise their own solutions. KVBN will enable Kangaroo Valley to be more creative, outward looking, vibrant and more economically diversified.

Yes perhaps it begins with self interest. Maybe it’s a simple desire to watch Netflix, or to be able to google a product without having to watch a whirring button going around and around, or to not spend hours trying to work out why the internet is not working. Certainly self interest has something to do with the extraordinary success of the crowd funding campaign that has raised $158,065  to create a reliable, high speed internet service for Kangaroo Valley. 159 people, in a small community of around 450 during normal week days, have put up $1000 to allow the architecture of the system to be created. This big amount of private support is effectively a small amount in network development terms. The fact that no-one has thought to do this before, gives pause for thought.

John Sinclair is the genius behind the idea of a private network, independent of the National Broadband Network, which works through a series of inter-connected antennas that are strategically placed around the escarpments and high points of one of the world’s few completely enclosed valleys. Before he began servicing a range of private clients in the Southern Highlands and around Kangaroo Valley as an IT consultant, John worked as a management consultant travelling across Australia and around the world. He saw many corporate communications solutions in remote areas and in mining sites like Indonesia. As he dealt with disgruntled client after disgruntled client in Kangaroo Valley, a picture began to form in his mind of the way a similar network could provide a customised community solution for the Valley.

The big telcos nor the NBN were not interested in any of this. For them a small community has to be served by a one size fits all solution. In Kangaroo Valley that involves one tower for wireless wifi facing the town and the small number of houses and businesses that run along the main street. In fact for the past twenty years, since the demise of the publicly owned telecommunications company Telstra and the deregulation of the telecommunications system, small communities desires to have their own customised solutions have been actively suppressed. The main game is to make profits in the urban population centres and this is where any infrastructure investment is likely to be concentrated. But there is something more than this at work too. The big telcos, and by big, I mean nationally oriented service providers are not necessarily interested in providing the best service but rather the most profitable service that makes a return for their shareholders.

The purveyors of neo-classical economics argue that developing a bunch of highly efficient and highly profitable telecommunications companies is what the whole game is all about, but what this misses is the intangible creativity of communities particularly in outer suburban, regional and remote areas of Australia.  The current national telecommunications providers are investing in is an old industrial model that is based around 19th century city structures. This is what happens when accountants and bean counters run big companies and when a very limited economic world view dominates the national imagination.

Every day on youtube there are advertisements aimed at young people. They begin with a guy or girl emerging from the surf. ‘Would you like your work to be more structured around what you love to do?” “Would you love to work near your family?" and the cue is: then take a job for an online IT company.  Ironically it was precisely this possibility that led to John Sinclair moving to Kangaroo Valley to be close to family and to set up his small business. He’d had enough of months being away from family and working for big corporates.

It isn’t just IT people that move to Kangaroo Valley, but unless there is highly efficient IT then any unit be it a family business, a creative arts and culture based organisation, a retailer or a farm cannot effectively survive. If there is efficient, cost effective, fast and evolving IT communications then all of these organisations and creative forms have the possibility of not only surviving but thriving.

Moreover a local economy, that currently depends on a small number of farms and businesses and on the tourist economy, starts to tap into a rich mix of possibilities once the IT capacity of the place is enhanced.

Aboriginal people long recognised the special interspatial qualities of the valley which was formed in the Ice Age and follows the erosion of the Kangaroo River and its tributaries and the Shoalhaven River. For the Aboriginal owners Kangaroo Valley continues to be a giant radar telescope pointing to the stars and galaxies. Like many other geographic wonders, Uluru, Port Douglas, Black Mountain outside of Cooktown, Kangaroo Valley has a sacred quality. Like many other natural geographic wonders it is a beckons to the great mysteries and is a place of untapped creativity and inspiration.

Mainstream Australians have their own ways of finding these special places and congregating around them. There is not just one or two of them. They exist in every province and in every geographic location.

My point is that our competitive national telecommunications corporate mentality still wants us to live in the equivalent of a Victorian terrace house. If it had a different perspective then it would invest in the John Sinclair’s of the world. What John’s elegant solution will show is that with a relatively modest amount of investment we can customise 21st century communications to communities and special geographic places!

So what will happen now. One of my friends gently reminded me, as I expounded the virtues of what the KVBN community has achieved, that we still have to build the network and make it work. That is most certainly true and the work really begins now for John and his trusted group of local contractors.

But already the Valley has changed. 159 creative people and their families and businesses have been lifted up and started to conceive of a new future in which all sorts of new creative ventures and collaborations can occur. The Valley is very lucky to be the home of a range of high flying entrepreneurs. They have generously invested into halls, our local show and our local primary school. Now the community has invested in a first class broadband network that will make all sorts of new work and creative life possible.

 Silicon Valley is now a 33 trillion dollar economy. One hundred years ago it too was a special natural environment near the magic city of San Francisco. No-one could have predicted that silicon transistors, the reason for the San Jose Valley’s nickname, would lead to a world in which companies would trade on family photographs and 30 word messages and where algorithms and social media companies would create undreamed of wealth.

I like to think that the KVBN will allow Kangaroo Valley to be, once again, the sacred telescope pointing to the stars and heavens, a place of inspiration, owned by no-one enjoyed by everyone. Sparks of creativity, inter-connected neurons will flow now faster and uninterruptedly, it will be a place where tourists do not just come for a weekend, but to find long term inspiration and thoughtfulness. The sounds of a thousand hateful curses and the noise of glass breaking as modems and phones and computers are hurled from windows will be forever gone.

 Peter Botsman
2 August 2018