VERY FAST broadband is on its way to Ballarat.Last month, the Federal Government announced it would scrap the tender process for the construction of an optic fibre to the node network. In its place would be a $43 billion National Broadband Network, to be rolled out over the next eight years.The new plan would see optical fibre connections made to businesses and households across 90 per cent of the Australian population.Those lucky enough to live in suburbs and towns of more than 1000 people can eventually expect download speeds of up to 100 megabits-per-second.The remainder of the country would be served by a combination of wireless and satellite services.According to the government, those technologies would be used to deliver a benchmark speed of 12Mbps to rural users. The green light has already been given to begin connecting the network together in Tasmania. The rest of the country will follow from the middle of next year.But what does it all mean for Ballarat?Plenty, according to George Fong, director of local ICT company Lateral Plains.He said a high speed broadband network would make Ballarat a much more viable place to set up a high-tech business."I think as a tech centre, the ability for Ballarat to become a tech services hub for the rest of he country is not too far fetched," Mr Fong said.In time, he believes this could take up the slack from manufacturing as a provider of jobs to the city. And if the city "makes the case loudly enough" it could move itself up the list of centres to be connected to the new technology.University of Ballarat Technology Park director Malcolm Vallance said the broadband network was an investment "long overdue"."(It) will mean that business and industry will be more competitive and efficient within a global context," Mr Vallance said. He said Ballarat could become the staging point for the roll-out of the network to western Victoria."I will be encouraging key leaders in Ballarat to ensure that we are well-positioned to follow Tasmania as a large regional centre that wants to be an early participant and adopter of the NBN."A spokesman for Federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said an implementation plan for the network was still being developed.One of the first sectors likely to benefit from the scheme locally is health.Grampians Rural Health Alliance chief information officer David Ryan said video conferencing technology was already being used by district nurses "to a varying degree of quality". But he said access to a reliably fast connection could make, for example, remote diagnosis of wounds possible.That is, a health worker could use a camera and connection in a patient's home to send high-definition images back to a centrally located specialist for diagnosis. "So it doesn't necessarily have to be a specialist wound person at the house, it could be a nurse or an allied health worker or it could even be someone from local government providing that service."However, such uses could test the limits of the new network in areas that did not have fibre to the premises connections, but instead relied on a wireless network. The issue of slower connections in country areas has also been pointed out by the opposition. Victorian Liberal Senator Julian McGauran said under the NBN, the more than 3400 residents of 10 towns within the Ballarat electorate would only get 12Mbps connections.He said under the previous government's plan, 12 wireless base stations would have been built in the electorate by OPEL, a consortium of Optus and Elders.But George Fong said the coalition's plan, which was to have used `Wimax' wireless technology, would have been a case of unnecessary duplication.
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