Despite approximately one third of Australia’s population living in rural and regional areas, enabling digital connectivity remains a significant challenge, especially in the Far Northern region and throughout the Torres Strait. Although millions of Australians live and work in these regional areas, business owners are often required to fly to Cairns for meetings due to poor technology capabilities, putting significant costly strains on businesses. However, with the ingenuity and forethought of people like Doug Stephens, Founder of AirBridge Networks, upcoming tech developments are being implemented to ensure next-generation connectivity, everywhere.
AirBridge Networks is a ground-breaking technological construct that is changing the face of communications for rural and regional areas in the north and already has vast national and international interest. The AirBridge solution is a construct that establishes a high-speed connection from the central source and distributes it to geographical destinations as far as 100km away and at speeds of up to 2Gbps – a revolutionary development for remote areas. AirBridge Founders, Doug Stephens and Andrew Cortis, are self-confessed country boys, both raised in Tropical North Queensland. Starting off out of high school as a technician fixing computers, Doug went on to gain as many certifications as he could – Microsoft, CompTIA, Novell, Cisco. “The infancy of the internet simply opened my eyes to the availability of information”, Doug says. He then went to the USA, and after three years became the CIO Head of Corporate Planning for 50 Below Sales & Marketing, the second largest web design and marketing firm in North America.
Eventually Doug returned to Australia as the CIO for the Torres Strait Regional Council. “There are sixteen islands in the Torres Strait, all very remote and regional with limited connectivity”, he says. “I applied the knowledge I had gained internationally and rolled out a substantial Telstra network to all these islands to achieve connectivity. Although the roll out was a success, the bigger question, however, was how to get connectivity between specific points, such as the council building and the airport, the works depot, the aged health facility or the library? There’s no copper in the sand, no fibreoptic cabling, so what’s the solution?” “I made a request for another IT resource and recommended a previous colleague Andrew Cortis who had no trouble securing the position. We started working on the project of how we were going to deliver connectivity to the Torres Strait. With a very modest budget, we managed to establish a high performing and stable wireless connection. We continued to develop the solution as we bridged more and more devices; six months later we’d achieved mass connectivity throughout the islands of the Torres Strait.”
After three years in the field, Telstra offered Doug a job designing networks, which he jumped at. After working extensively in local government consulting to many regional councils, it was observed that similar problems and stress points existed in other regional areas as they did in the Torres Strait – how to expand the connectivity network effectively and at minimal cost to the business. After a successful run with Telstra, Doug and Andrew – who was still working with the Torres Strait Island Regional Council- decided to take this technology and experience to the market. There was a need, and they knew how to address it, hence AirBridge Networks was born.
The Connectivity Issue
The topic of improving regional broadband has dominated political campaigns because people recognise they cannot attract new business or promote sociological connectivity if there is no access to high-speed internet. In rural and regional areas, the infrastructure is often already overloaded due to congestion, and is worse during peak times. These restrictions dictate where regional business can operate or whether they can even attempt to expand on a wider, national, or international scale.
Where there is existing connectivity via fibreoptic, copper or 3/4G, for example a typical council, the site may have a 100MB connection at one location, but then must invest in subsequent disparate connections at several different locations. This is expensive and often leads to frustration and inefficiencies. When comparing that delivering 200Mb, or even 1GB to the head office or central location, then redistributing to different locations via an AirBridge, it becomes a much more cost-effective solution for business.
In the two years AirBridge Networks has been operational, they have provided connectivity in numerous rural and regional areas, as well as in Cairns metro and surrounds. “Connectivity everywhere – it’s quite literally what we do”, says Andrew. “We are anywhere where the carrier says, ‘it’s not possible’, or ‘that’s just the signal’.
“We have worked for Quicksilver with bridges out to Green and Fitzroy Islands, Cairns Trinity Auto when they had to connect their city site with the Earlville site; we are anywhere where you would ordinarily have to dig up the road or drape cables into ceiling spaces. We can simply install the AirBridges, and it works.”
Consumption and Competition
Despite the potential for otherwise, AirBridge Networks has a healthy working relationship with Telstra and exclusively delivers the solution through Calibre One – a Telstra gold partner with offices in Cairns, Darwin and Adelaide. Initially the reception in the telco space was cold as the AirBridge Networks team were rapidly disconnecting services. However, with the new afforded connectivity, it was noted that technology adoption spiked significantly leading to increased consumption and a unified experience.
Doug explains, “In the 90s, for example, if you had a 56K modem, you were happy with the experience you had. It may have been slow, but you would probably consume maybe 10MB a day. Fast forward to today where we’re using 100MB connections with streaming video, interactive social media and connected household appliances, you’re using all the bandwidth made available to you. And will it ever be enough? Probably not! We now have more connected devices than ever before- it’s all about consumption.
“When we delivered into the Northern Peninsula area, several different communities hosted many unequal connections. When the AirBridge network was installed, we facilitated the cancelation of countless Telstra services. Needless to say, this is the one example that was frowned upon the most. Fast forward two years later, the community has video conferencing, public Wi-Fi and IP telephony; they’ve said ‘can we use CCTV? Can we connect to our security systems to open and shut gates? Can we turn on air-conditioning systems, start and stop pumps, monitor bridges…’. With connectivity where they need it, through a rock-solid, high-speed network connection, businesses can then start looking at cloud strategies, disaster management, remote managed services, telehealth and consulting – all of these needs can be filled with services supplied through the likes of Telstra.”
Connectivity and Culture
The use of social media and digital technologies has grown rapidly in Australia and around the world, including among Indigenous young people who face the loss of traditional cultures through generational gaps. With this in mind, AirBridge Networks is involved in developing augmented reality applications that assist in re-creating those traditions, exposing today’s youth to their ancient cultures.
“Most indigenous communities have difficulty with connectivity because they are typically regional and rural in nature”, Doug says. “My work with many community leaders addresses the question of ‘how do we use this technology to engage the youth?’. Their concerns were primarily welfare reform, employment, security and public safety, and most of that is systemic from a loss in culture.”
Bridging the gap between the elders and the children was always going to be difficult, but AirBridge Networks didn’t hesitate to take on the challenge. “We started looking at existing council resources such as public Wi-Fi access. From a behavioural perspective, it means that taking a safe, well-lit and monitored area and using a schedule to turn an access point on (e.g. 5 PM) knowing that the demographic we want to engage with will be in the area at that time.” “We can then use this access point to send out important information and community announcements – ie, there’s a cyclone coming, have you noticed that bin day has changed, don’t go near the boat ramp because a crocodile’s been spotted. Once the device has been connected to the access point, and our target market is in the area we can deliver a message.”
“This is where the augmented reality starts to take place. Wouldn’t it be great if we took a six, twelve or sixteen year olds and said ‘let’s go visit this sacred site’, and it’ll overlook a river and they’ll hear the story of how this came to be by panning their device over the space, seeing it within an augmented version of as it once was.”
“This is the structure and the culture that the regional communities are trying to preserve. If we can provide connectivity to that area, the person can activate the camera, see what it looks like today with an overlay of what it was 250 years ago – the fire crackling, some curlews in the background, a recreation of a corrobboree or a dance or something that speaks to the core of that community. “By engaging with an audience in that way, it’s very thought-provoking, and you’re in a strong position to positively influence the way people think.”
The social implications for the connectivity AirBridge Networks have provided has reached far beyond the accessibility for businesses. “We’d completed a roll out in Kowanyama and it was very successful”, Andrew recalls. “There was a saving to council on their communications spend. On site, we had a lady come up to us wanting to express her thanks.
We said, you’re welcome, no problem. She continued, ‘I don’t understand how the internet works, but I want to thank you for my daughter’s job. The money that council has saved, they were able to put on an apprenticeship scheme, and my daughter has taken up a hairdressing apprenticeship because of that, so you’ve given her a job’.
“This was our ‘Aha!’ moment”, Andrew continues. “I simply hadn’t put it together that by providing connectivity, the flow on effects would be so simple yet impactful. That was the point where Doug and I realised that this is what we needed to keep going. The work that we do doesn’t cost a lot of money, comparatively speaking, so the money that councils are saving on communications is now being focused into other wider-reaching projects.” Wireless networks aren’t new, and – as Doug says – AirBridge is not reinventing the wheel. However, it’s the speeds and locations to which AirBridge Networks can supply connectivity that is remarkable. “It’s being able to respond quickly that makes us strong”, Doug says. “Connectivity is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.”