Internet revolution set to shake
How do you keep them down on the farm? Bring the world to the farm with the internet. Kill the old cliche about tyranny of distance by putting up an online portal - a central place for the world to click in and shop or chat, even by video phone - and get the bush wired up for the new millennium. If a shirt shop in the US can do business with someone in Melbourne, why can't someone in, say, Minyip, make a dollar the same way? All you need is a good idea and a way to show it off to the world - or even just to the rest of Australia.
That's the ethos and aim of an ambitious rural rejuvenation project backed by the Federal Government, the University of Ballarat's Centre for Electronic Commerce and Communications and the newly established Chamber of Electronic Commerce - Western Victoria.
Work has started on an eCommerce portal at MainStreet.au.com hosted by the University of Ballarat and boosted by initial funding of $274,000 from the Federal Government's Networking the Nation program.
Internet portals allow small businesses to have a larger internet presence, more easily found by cybershoppers and businesses. Local companies will be encouraged to begin by setting up $25 'poster pages' on MainStreet.au.com. These can be developed further, with online ordering and secure payments. The Chamber of Electronic Commerce - Western Victoria, under the direction of Ross Davey, is leading the electronic push for the bush in Western Victoria. It aims to have at least half the region's 13,500 businesses online by the end of 2001.
"That's a big ask, but it's not impossible" the Regional Connectivity Coordinator, Peter Ziebell said. "There's a huge drain from country regions of our young people. They have to go away for education and stay away for work. But if we can show them how they can be tele-workers or conduct businesses online, then they start to have a choice." There might even be some flow from the cities to the country. "The lifestyle is a big attraction - clean air, easier commuting, much cheaper housing, good schools and a sense of community" Mr Ziebell said. "But we have a lot of problems to overcome."
Among these is the fragile condition of large parts of the existing telephone system. "A farmer might set himself up online and then find he has problems in his copper wire in six or ten places" he said. "The lines are still ok for voice but they are reaching the end of their useful life so far as data is concerned. I'm not hitting Telstra, but the data error rate is huge. We're starting to hit the wall on the capacity of rural exchanges. There's also no such thing as a local call out here, but we're working on strategies to mitigate that."
Ballarat is the centre for much of this activity and home for NetConnect, a big local internet service provider that has built a large local network with fast downlinks from the PanAmerican satellites and made clever use of Telstra landline hubs to get the best possible pricing for calls. George Fong, one of NetConnect's founders says Ballarat is now thriving as a technology centre, but much more needs to be done for the smaller regional towns. "We've got tremendous community spirit. All sorts of people are becoming involved" he said. "The University of Ballarat's Centre for Electronic Commerce and Communications was the engine for much of the campaign" Mr Fong said. Government funding so far announced for this rural rejuvenation program totals more than $2.8 million including $1.7 million for a new microwave system linking the University of Ballarat to its regional campuses at Mount Helen, Horsham, Stawell, Ararat and Ballarat.
This will give access to the University's libraries and other resources and the internet for homes and offices throughout the region. Broadband microwave could allow near broadcast quality video transmissions, "so a student in Horsham could see a lecture being delivered in Ballarat or Melbourne or anywhere in the world" the Minister for State and Regional Development, John Brumby said at last week's opening.
In Minyip last week, Mr Brumby also launched the first stage of a $1.1 million pilot project aimed at giving Ararat, Daylesford, Edenhope, Horsham, Minyip and Nhill access to the latest online business technology.
Speaking at a function held in the Internet Cafe@Emma's in Minyip, which once did duty as the backdrop for the old TV soap The Flying Doctors, Mr Brumby said the new centres would provide regional communities with high-speed internet access, desktop video conference facilities and other resources needed to conduct online business. "We aim to show that it is possible to operate a successful business anywhere, not just in Melbourne" he said.