The pipes are calling. Fat pipes that is.
A private internet network known as SABRENet set up more than a decade ago by three universities to connect researchers and enable them to send big files to each other was ahead of its time. Has one of the answers to the painful economic transition of South Australia been sitting there all along?
It is nirvana for digital start-ups because the internet speeds are at least 10 times faster than the national broadband network will be able to muster.
It is about to be revved up in a big way and by mid-2017 the SABRENet network will be fully connected to an extra 14 business precincts across Adelaide. They include the Techport site operated by submarine and warship builder ASC, where $50 billion-worth of submarines will be built under the much-vaunted project announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in early 2016 when French firm DCNS was awarded the contract. Techport is one of eight precincts out of the 14 which already have been stitched into the network.
The expansion of SABRENet is being fuelled by $5 million of extra spending by the South Australian government, led by Premier Jay Weatherill, to connect it to other business precincts which also include the Tonsley Technology Park. That once housed another manufacturing relic – the Mitsubishi car factory which shut down in 2008. The fatter pipes of the super-fast fibre optic network will be offered to businesses who want to take advantage of the faster speeds. But they will have to stump up extra to connect to it. It comes as the NBN continues to be an expensive political football as a complicated roll-out of its service drags on.
It will mean that Adelaide becomes the first Australian city to join the growing Gig City international movement, which has an unlikely flag-bearer in the United States regional city of Chattanooga in Tennessee.
Chattanooga re-invented itself as a hotspot for hi-tech businesses in 2010 when the city’s electricity utility EPB installed a fibre optic network, helped by a federal economic stimulus grant. It delivered speeds of one gigabit per second. A raft of hi-tech companies moved in and a thriving new economy at the forefront of the digital age emerged in Chattanooga which once had the reputation as one of the dirtiest cities in the United States.
The existing SABRENet network has been jointly owned for more than a decade by the state government, and the University of Adelaide, the University of South Australia and Flinders University.
One of the most enthusiastic proponents of the advantages of the fatter pipes and what SABRENet can offer is the former chief executive of oil and gas company Santos, John Ellice-Flint.
He labels it a “game-changer”. Providing the infrastructure for the digital age means that smart start-ups, app developers and a range of other industries can set up shop and in turn take advantage of the lifestyle attractions of a smaller city.
Mr Ellice-Flint, who was chief executive of Santos for eight years until 2008, is on the board of the national body, Infrastructure Australia. He believes that attracting creative thinkers and creative industries is crucial and that becoming a GigCity is an important milestone.
The digital infrastructure expansion is scheduled to be fully up and running by mid-2017, just a few months before car maker Holden shuts down its car-making factory at Elizabeth in Adelaide’s northern suburbs. Ford shut down its car plant in outer Melbourne in late 2016.
South Australian Manufacturing and Innovation Minister Kyam Maher says the SABRENet network will attract creative hi-tech industries, and that tenders closed in mid-December for the provider who will “light up” the GigCity network. “Fibre is now in place at more than half of the 14 innovation precincts in preparation for GigCity to go live,” he says.
The remaining six sites are scheduled to be connected by April, Mr Maher says.