The “information superhighway” sounds quaint 20 years on, but at the time it represented the federal government’s first major effort to consciously map a digital future for Australia.
Later iterations of this policy would lead to the establishment of the NBN and, learning from earlier experiences of allowing Telstra to keep control over the infrastructure, the Rudd government would pursue the establishment of a separate company to run the broadband network.
But back to 1995.
Since 1990 Telstra’s monopoly over telecommunications services had been progressively dismantled. The internet was rapidly evolving. But in 1995 most Australians who were accessing it were using old copper phone lines at dismally slow speeds.
How then to drive investment by Telstra in broadband and encourage rapid uptake by industry?
In 1995 the cabinet commissioned an expert group to peer into the future. In April of that year it considered several submissions, including the broadband services expert group report.
“The ‘information superhighway’ is a powerful enabling tool that is driving and shaping traditional industries as well as being a progenitor of a whole new range of products and industries,” the industry minister, Peter Cook, enthused in his submission.
“Information and communications will be a key driver of business efficiency and international competitiveness.”
Cook warned it was a global race to remain at the cutting edge.
“The infrastructure to establish the information superhighway in Australia is in place or under development. While broadband services in Australia are currently at an embryonic stage, the telecommunications carriers are installing broadband cable capacity, which will provide more sophisticated delivery of information services to business and for interactive communication.”
Cook said there was strong case for the government “to channel and accelerate the process to ensure the widest possible uptake and best use of these new technologies in both the public and private sectors”.
Cabinet agreed that the prime minister would make a statement at the end of the year, but in the meantime ministers were urged to look at how government services could be made more efficient by the use of broadband. Central to the statement would be a commitment to access and equity, the cabinet note recorded.
The cabinet was obsessed with innovation, but getting meaningful investment could be tricky.
In 1994 it considered a request by the German government to land a space rocket at Woomera, with the minister for science arguing it could lead to future industry collaboration. The foreign affairs department worried that it might undermine Australia’s credentials on non-proliferation if the Germans were really testing ballistic missile technology.
There was less enthusiasm for Australia’s domestic national space program, begun in the late 1980s. In deliberations over the 1995-96 budget cuts to the program, the finance department said: “Since its inception in 1986 the National Space Program has not achieved any sufficiently tangible benefits to warrant its continued separate support outside the range of general, non sectoral industry and science assistance programs.”
The government’s plan for the so-called Multifunction Polis on the fringe of Adelaide was also struggling. The MFP concept was first suggested by the Japanese government during ministerial discussions in 1987 and was intended to “be national and international in scope”.
The futuristic city was meant to have 100,000 residents and be a magnet for high-tech industries. But by 1995 the cabinet was grappling with where the project was going.
The cabinet was told the first stage of the MFP development had evolved into an estate “expected to house some 10,000 to 12,000 people over about 12 years”.
“It will demonstrate the capacity for ‘clever’ (technologically advanced), ‘greener’ (environmentally sensitive) and ‘richer’ (in this case socially) community development. Fibre optic communications … will enable a range of leading edge urban services such as telecommuting, education, business services and entertainment.”
But it was never to be. It was abandoned in 1998.