Over the last 10 years the proportion of households in NSW with access to the internet increased from around 70 per cent to around 85 per cent across all categories of households (refer Figure 4)76. As universal access to fast, reliable, affordable digital technology becomes essential, so too does building the community’s capability to use digital services.
Figure 4: Accessibility to digital infrastructure in Australia (%) 77
The NBN provides the means for meeting the connectivity needs of most households. Figure 5 shows the increases in NBN network traffic across Australia during the pandemic.
Figure 5: NBN network traffic across Australia pre-COVID to August 2020 (%) 78
Quality and accessible digital infrastructure is essential as demand increases and businesses, households and governments become more reliant on digital connections and processes.
Pressure on Greater Sydney’s digital infrastructure capacity will continue. However, access is inconsistent. There are gaps in the affordability, quality and reliability of connectivity and differences in technical literacy and willingness to access digital services. During the pandemic, south west Sydney had the highest numbers of public school students who had limited or no access to the internet, including smartphones79.
Where people can get online is also changing. It is not just in the home or the office, but also in public spaces or on public transport. Consultation with stakeholders highlighted that:
- flexible work can be supported with smart work hubs and public wi-fi in parks, and public spaces or public transport
- face to face services and communication are still important and not always suitable to be conducted online, for example, when people interact with the health, justice or education systems.
Globally, growth in demand for data and the number of connected devices is growing beyond what has ever been envisaged in city planning. This demand is outstripping investment. While some countries are planning for 10 gigabit optical fibre networks, others are already planning 100 gigabit networks.
Digital economy and cyber security
The conversion of physical services digital delivery during the pandemic, including telehealth consultations and the widespread virtual learning at schools reinforces the need for fit-for-purpose digital infrastructure that everyone can access.
This however presents a city-wide cyber security risk. Businesses need the right hardware to overcome challenges with remote access to their systems including cyber security threats. There are also risks for utility operations such as intrusion into critical activities like energy or water supplies. The appropriate infrastructure and systems will better guard the city from cyber security threats, support continuity of internet access and create opportunities for innovation and business expansion that could underpin economic recovery.
In this context, digital infrastructure must be considered essential infrastructure. This is already acknowledged with recent investment in the digital economy and cyber security through the NSW Government’s Digital Restart Fund, which includes $240 million for cyber security80.
The pandemic is accelerating the sharing of data but has also exposed where systems need to be improved. The NSW Government’s commitment to smart places, expressed through the Smart Places Strategy, uses live and near-time data and insights to drive decisions. Data is gathered through a network of sensors and technologies embedded in the built and natural environment. Emerging initiatives like the Smart Western City Program are designed to support place-based smart interventions. This may include smart pole networks with public wi-fi to improve connectivity in public spaces and making greenfield sites “smart” from the start.
Never has it been more striking that digital infrastructure should be prioritised as essential infrastructure alongside physical and social infrastructure. Digital technology is transforming established business models, use of services, community networks and how we use public spaces. Greater incorporation of digital with spatial planning will ensure the virtual and physical city complement and support businesses and the community. This requires a risk-based approach to information and cyber security that incorporates citizen support.