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Can the NBN ‘save’ our cities?

By Alan Davies - posted Friday, 27 August 2010

In a recent blog post I asked if our largest capitals could grow bigger and remain liveable. Now I’m looking at the flipside - whether or not the National Broadband Network (NBN) will give regional centres the wherewithal to draw population growth away from Sydney and Melbourne.

This question is prompted by avuncular New England Independent, Tony Windsor, who argued on Q&A on August 23 that the National Broadband Network could be a key driver of decentralisation:

“If there’s been a piece of infrastructure (if it’s done correctly) that negates distance as being a disadvantage of living in country Australia, this is it …

“We’re going through a population debate at the moment. The election was about the people of western Sydney and western Melbourne and Dick Smith and others talking about how we’ve got to constrain the population of this nation. Nothing about regional Australia in that context. Nothing about the infrastructure out there. If we get the broadband system right it could revolutionise country living and solve some of the city-based problems.”


I’ve previously concluded (here, here, here and here) that the prospects for diverting growth from our cities to regional centres on a significant scale do not appear promising (other than if nearby regional centres become satellites i.e. de facto outer suburbs). However could the NBN, as Mr Windsor suggests, be the magic bullet?

Doesn’t look like it to me. I’m always struck by the example of Canberra. It would seem to have all the right ingredients in place for growth - it is pump-primed with tens of thousands of public servants, has an extraordinarily high level of human capital, has excellent air connections to capital cities, is close to the Hume Highway and cable internet is available in major commercial areas and some suburbs.

Yet the ACT still only has a population of 352,000, whereas Sydney accommodates 4.5 million people and Melbourne 4 million. The population of the ACT grew by just 5,900 over the 12 months to June 30, 2009 (1.7 per cent), while Melbourne grew by 93,500 (2.4 per cent) and Sydney by 85,400 (1.9 per cent).

Obviously major corporations aren’t going to shift to the regions. They’re prepared to pay a big premium in rent to be in the CBDs of large cities when, if they wanted to, they could make substantial savings by relocating just a few kilometres away. But smaller companies are also unlikely to be attracted to regional centres in significant numbers just because of the NBN. There are just so many other factors that determine location.

First, capital cities offer a much larger home market - 45 times larger if Sydney’s population is compared with Albury/Wodonga’s, Ballarat’s or Launceston’s. And if the firm sells to other businesses rather than consumers, the ratio will generally be even larger.

Second, major cities offer a larger and more diverse labour market for firms. Talented staff want to be in a place where there are lots of job opportunities within their industry. Young staff prefer the social opportunities offered by a large city.


Third, it is easier for a firm to keep abreast of industry developments if it is located in a place with a large number of its suppliers, customers and competitors.

Fourth, capital cities offer much better air connections, both within Australia and overseas, than virtually all regional centres.

Fifth, it is easier to access specialist legal, financial and technical services within a big city.

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First published at The Melbourne Urbanist on August 25, 2010.

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About the Author

Dr Alan Davies is a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Pty Ltd ( and is the editor of the The Urbanist blog.

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