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Doing business in regional areas: Time to close the digital divide

It’s well documented that city-dwellers are flocking to live in regional areas. An unprecedented combination of circumstances makes a treechange or seachange more viable than ever before.

Hand-in-hand with this change has been a quantum shift to work-from-home arrangements for many in white-collar industries such as finance, management, professional services, IT and telecommunications, whose roles can be performed from anywhere that reliable internet exists.

I’ve joined the exodus too, relocating from Sydney to the Hunter Valley last year because … well, why not, if work and lifestyle circumstances permit? Many of my employees are also making the same choice and/or embracing remote working patterns, which I fully encourage. 

Getting away from the urban sprawl has never been more attractive or achievable, which is confirmed by ABS data that shows 33,600 people migrating out of the capital cities between July 2020 and March 2021. In a similar timeframe, a 36 per cent rise in overall data consumption shows we’ve grown ever more reliant on the internet for everything from doing business via video calls to our retail needs and leisure pursuits.

The regional rub

Yet for business owners keen to join this great regional migration, there’s still a major rub: many rural areas remain chronically underserved by fast, reliable internet service. One of my new Hunter Valley neighbours commented that while the rollout of NBN Satellite into our area was a vast improvement on what they had previously, it still doesn’t come close to what’s available in the capital cities. 

I can confirm it’s certainly a struggle to run not only a technology-based business without reliable connectivity but a public-listed company. And this is surely a key reason why even more businesses haven’t relocated to the regions, where they could be creating local jobs and adding significant extra value to communities doing it tough.

I feel lucky to be able to help to do something about it for many regions around Australia. The telco I oversee, Swoop, is a small but growing internet provider rolling out into regional areas all over Australia using fixed wireless infrastructure. 

Internet – it’s for everyone

Fixed wireless can now compete with other technologies on network quality, speed and service coverage, especially in areas with older legacy infrastructure. It’s more economical to establish and maintain than fixed-line internet, which relies on cables in the ground that are expensive to lay, costs passed on to the consumer. In contrast, wireless towers can be set up in around 40 days and broadcast a strong signal reliably up to a 10-kilometre radius. This makes fixed wireless an ideal option for businesses and home-based workers who live in rural areas where cabling is deemed too expensive and who have limited service or none at all.

We recently purchased local telcos in regional Victoria and South Australia, and Perth, to help grow our footprint outside the eastern seaboard capitals which, understandably, is where the larger telcos have traditionally focused their attention.

Flipping the script

But now we see the COVID-19 pandemic flipping the script, so innovative solutions are required to make sure that regional areas also get reliable access to internet service. Not only to facilitate e-commerce and data-hungry leisure activities such as streaming entertainment and gaming but also to have the opportunity to welcome new businesses that can bring much-needed economic muscle to rural areas.

With capital cities bursting at the seams and urban infrastructure unable to keep up, it’s logical to make regional and rural areas more attractive destinations. This applies only to treechangers and work-from-homers, but especially to small and medium businesses that can bring employment opportunities and significant economic activity. 

Read more: Meet the woman behind the digital support network for regional businesses

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Alex West

Alex West

Alex West is the CEO of ASX-listed telco Swoop.

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