Bridging the digital divide in regional Australia

The Highlands Health Education Research Network exemplifies an AARNet community partnership delivering a scalable and sustainable broadband solution for schools in a regional area.

Bridging the digital divide in regional Australia

For schools in regional Australia, accessing the kind of broadband capabilities they need to integrate 21st-century digital teaching and learning practices is a challenge that can seem impossible to overcome.

This was the case in the Southern Highlands region of New South Wales a few years ago. With bandwidth needs of schools rapidly increasing and Internet access limited by existing telecommunications services and the geography of the area, a grassroots collaborative community project emerged to find a solution.

An AARNet community partnership delivers a broadband solution for regional schools

“Access to reliable high-performing network infrastructure is fundamental to a school’s ability to engage with all the digital resources and technologies for education available today. Our schools were denied access and disadvantaged and I wanted to change that,” said Allen Cupitt, Managing Director of Ace Internet Services, a local Internet service provider and entrepreneur.

“Solving this problem had been a long-time dream of mine, but we couldn’t do it alone. Being able to work with a dynamic and flexible organisation such as AARNet made the impossible possible for our region,” he said.

The opportunity to realise his dream arose when the Garvan Institute of Medical Research built the Australian BioResources (ABR) facility in Moss Vale. The Garvan’s Sydney sites were connected to AARNet via its association with the University of New South Wales and access to high-speed broadband was critical to the operations of the Moss Vale research facility. With support from the NSW Department of State and Regional Development, the Garvan connected ABR to AARNet’s Sydney–Canberra fibre optic backbone. This meant that ABR had access to a 10Gbps network and the largest independent Internet connection in the region.

A meeting with AARNet was organised to discuss the idea of building a school network to interconnect with this new ABR link. Local community meetings followed and then, with the support of AARNet, ABR, school principals, Wingecarribee Shire Council and local Chambers of Commerce, a solution was designed to connect the schools to AARNet via the ABR link using microwave last mile technologies.

Wingecarribee Shire Council granted permission for a tower to be built on Oxley’s Hill in Bowral to replace an older tower that was to be decommissioned. In April 2010, with the new tower completed, high-speed radios were installed, connecting the ABR facilities to the tower and launching the Highland Health Education Research Network (HHERN).

For the first time, high-speed, high-capacity Internet was available for education in the region

Catholic and independent schools and the Bradman Museum are now connected to AARNet via the HHERN.

Chris McDermott, Principal of Chevalier College Buradoo, the first school to connect says, “ The HHERN has helped transform the educational options for our College and it means our students and teachers are now working within a world class internet bandwidth environment. As a springboard to their future, it is huge boost for our young people, especially for a regional area like the Southern Highlands that almost certainly wouldn’t otherwise have that advantage.”

The HHERN is currently being upgraded to AARNet4, which will deliver more capacity to meet the future needs of a growing number schools and other organisations with a research or education mission located in the Southern Highlands.

Broad base community buy-in, local leadership, local autonomy and local ownership are key

Nick Cross, AARNet’s Education Outreach Manager says the HHERN is a scalable and sustainable solution that can meet a school’s increasing bandwidth demands without a capacity/price/performance trade off.

“The project also exemplifies all the key characteristics needed to make this type of solution in a regional area possible: broad base community buy-in, local leadership, local autonomy and local ownership,” he said.

The HHERN demonstrates a scalable and replicable model where university and research facilities can play a role as an anchor tenant for high-speed advanced R&E network capability, which enables schools, TAFE’s, hospitals, galleries, and other education and research institutions to reap the benefits of this transformative technology.

Digital technologies and networking provide access to online and blended learning and other opportunities to overcome some of the traditional issues of isolation and disadvantage common to many regional organisations.

“This is really about relieving digital poverty and there’s a lot of that in regional Australia. There’s always going to be a leading edge and we need to keep ahead of the game so that our schools can deliver high quality education services to their students. Access to AARNet has opened up the world for our schools,” said Cupitt.

What our customers are saying

“The HHERN has helped transform the educational options for our College and it means our students and teachers are now working within a world class internet bandwidth environment.”

Chris McDermott, Principal Chevalier College

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