The people of Gippsland have been given a unique opportunity to name the dropouts, the blackspots and the poor digital connections that impede their ability to live, work and play.

A new Connecting Victoria online survey (engage.vic.gov.au/connecting-victoria) is asking people to help identify the location and impact of mobile coverage and internet access problems. Individuals, business and community groups are encouraged to pinpoint where improvements are needed, so the right infrastructure upgrades can be delivered for our region.

Throughout the past 18 months, digital connections were seen as the golden goose in a COVIDSafe world. A way for many to maintain social connections and continue to participate economically – even when we could not leave our state, town or at times even our houses.

Zoom meetings, online learning as well as apps for shopping for clothes, electronics, food and beverages boomed. There was innovation aplenty and for those that were able to connect to this brave new world, there was continued amazement at how clever and adaptable society has become.

But herein lies the problem: for many of us in Gippsland the COVIDSafe world was not an equal playing field. There were a great many for whom connecting to broadband or mobile infrastructure remained nothing more than a daily exercise in being left behind.

The data, unsurprisingly, backs these real-world experiences. A plan that maps digital issues for Gippsland found that we sit almost 15 points behind inner city Melbourne on the Australian Digital Inclusion Index.

It further found that there were 500 registered mobile blackspots and almost three quarters of Gippsland centres and towns had an ‘intermediate’ shortfall in access to broadband.
Almost 70 per cent of the region’s key tourism locations identified a ‘major’ shortfall in access to broadband. Across five of the region’s key primary producing areas, this figure grew to 100 per cent.

These figures are concerning as farming is evolving as a more digital enterprise, the paddocks are increasingly demanding fibre to the farm, not just from the farm. Tourists are also beginning to demand a combination of the virtual as part of their #IRL holiday experiences. Times are indeed changing.

In January this year, One Gippsland began the process of advocating for improved digital infrastructure in our region. We met with the previous Minister for Regional Communications and the Member for Gippsland the Hon Darren Chester MP to talk about how planned government investment could benefit our region.

In partnership with NBN Co, the Australian government has announced a new $4.5 billion NBN network plan. The expansion of the network includes 240 Business Fibre Zones, three of which are planned for Morwell, Traralgon and Sale. While this is a significant and much welcomed announcement, we have advocated that all major towns in the Gippsland need to be included in this NBN program.

We have also asked that Gippsland be prioritised in the next round (5A) of the Mobile Black Spot Program and the Regional Connectivity Program, with Gippsland successfully securing four key projects as part of Round One.

The Victorian government’s Connecting Victoria Program is an essential next step in getting the right data to identify the issues, down to the local level.
Beyond COVID-19, Gippsland has been challenged by bushfires, the dairy crisis, drought and the closure of Hazelwood. Theses have stripped almost $7 billion from our economy, and more than 10,000 jobs.

Despite this we do know that there are exciting opportunities on the horizon. The holiday at home trend, a food and fibre and manufacturing-led recovery as well as a rethink of big city living and working are all chances for our region to shine.

Without sufficient mobile and broadband connectivity these opportunities may not be realised. Gippslanders need to complete the Connecting Victoria online survey to make sure the government isn’t left guessing about the scale of the issue in our region.

Brett Tessari, One Gippsland chair.