Information Technology and the Rural Sector

Tom Worthington

For: 'The bush Telegraph for The 21st Century', Seminar by the NSW Liberal Party
31 July 1999
Draft 2.0, 28 July 1999:


Tom Worthington discusses how IT can assist the rural sector. He first explores some of the myths of computing and the Internet which impede government policy making in IT. Then he looks at some of the urban biases built into IT development and how these can be overcome. Tom concludes with an example of an IT project which could help rural Australia and create a new technology export market for Australia. The speaker will then take questions and illustrate the answers using a live Internet connection (if available).

Exploring the Networked Nation

In this brief presentation I quickly cover a lot of points, making a lot of claims and suggestions. The support for these is in my book, "Net Traveller: Exploring the Networked Nation", published by the Australian Computer Society, this week. You can order the book from the ACS, read it free on the web and there is a brief slide show also on-line. The on-line version of this presentation contains links to the relevant chapters of the book.

Myths of computing and the Internet

There are many myths about computing and the Internet which impede government policy making:

Urban biases built into IT development

There are urban biases built into IT development; telecommunications in particular. This isn't surprising as the people who design the technology live in cities and design for the people with most money (in the city).

It is easier to design technology, assuming a constant and clean electricity supply, short cable runs and a repair van just around the corner. Some technologies, such as GSM mobile telephones, have an inherent distance limitation built in. GSM was designed for European cities and can't go the distance in the Australian countryside.

Urban IT developers assume that more bandwidth (bits per second) will be available, more computer power, bigger screens and more of everything else. I suggest that Australia, and Australian companies, can benefit the rural community and make a lot of money by building robust, low bandwidth products for outback users.

An IT project to help rural Australia

Lastly I want to propose a strategy for developing IT suitable for the Australian bush, a way to pay for it and a new technology export market for Australia. This is based on the original strategy which created the Internet. It uses the challenges of the Australian rural environment to develop robust, efficient products for a world market:

  1. Abolish the Defence Science and Technology Organisation
  2. Abandon Defence work on X.400 e-mail and other GOSIP technology
  3. Establish a small Australian Defence Research Agency (ADRA)
  4. Have ADRA fund research on robust and secure Internet networking and computing
  5. Test the products developed in rural Australia
  6. Export these products to the world

Establish the Australian Defence Research Agency

The Internet was developed with research money from the US Defence Department. The level of funding used was very modest, when compared to projects, such as the space program. If properly directed, the Australian Department of Defence has sufficient funding to invent the next Internet.

According to the Defence Annual Report 1997/98 the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), is spending $230.3 million a year on R&D and has 2,406 staff. However, DSTO research scientists are public servants and subject to secrecy provisions. This is not an environment conducive to collaboration with the private sector, or spin-offs of commercial products.

Several years ago, the US, UK, Australian and other western governments developed the Government Open System Interconnection profile (GOSIP). This was intended to provide a standardised way for government computers to communicate. But the Internet came along and overtook GOSIP. Defence is about the only part of Government still trying to get GOSIP to work. Our allies are not really taking it serious and Australian Defence should give up on GOSIP and put its efforts into making Internet technology secure and reliable.

In place of DSTO an Australian Defence Research Agency could be established. This would be modelled on the US DoD's Defence Research projects Agency (DARPA) and would work by contracting research to external R&D organisations. DSTO's current budget could be cut to return a 20% productivity bonus to Government and 10% of the remainder retained for administration (with 10% of the current staff level). The remaining 70% of budget, would provide $161 million for grants to Australian organisations to conduct research and development.

IT projects

There is a strong synergy between the needs of defence IT and that of the rural community. Both need products which will operate in remote areas, a long way from service and support, away from high speed permanent network links and under demanding conditions.

Technologies developed for defence applications in Australia could have immediate spin-off application for the rural community. In addition this would be a good test ground for products for developing countries which lack a fixed IT infrastructure.

Below are some ideas for short term projects (six months to three years) which would be likely to product large benefits for the Australian Defence Force, products useful for the Australian rural community and export products.

Proposed projects:


IT can assist the rural sector. Governments need to understand the myths of computing which impede policy making. IT development is rapid, but Australian researchers can advise what is coming, in time for policy makers to get ready. Big IT companies are not IT experts and small start-ups can be encouraged. The urban biases built into IT development can be overcome. Federal Defence research funds can be diverted to provide commercial R&D spin-offs.

About the author

Tom Worthington is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University. He is an electronic business consultant, author and information technology professional, with 17 years experience in information technology, including nine years on high level IT policy and five in Internet applications.

Further Information

Copyright © Tom Worthington 1999.