Digital Life

Overseas policies put communities first

Fibre-to-the-premises is helping develop e-health in remote parts of Sweden.

Paul Budde says Australia is catching up fast.
Paul Budde says Australia is catching up fast. 

Patients in remote parts of Sweden are seeing doctors more promptly, owing to the country’s nationwide broadband policy.

Countries such as South Korea and Japan have seen soaring broadband take-up rates, but Sweden was one of the first countries to develop a comprehensive broadband policy focused on delivering community benefits. Sweden’s broadband take-up now rivals the Asian early-adopters, but it also has the most "digitally connected economy in the world", according to a World Economic Forum report.

Like Australia, Sweden’s broadband infrastructure aims to support  remote municipalities as well as  large cities. Also like Australia, Sweden is deploying a fibre to the home network and enforcing "structural separation" - to ensure that  providers and services have equal network access to improve services nationwide. Independent reports have found that Sweden’s fibre-based broadband networks have had "a clear impact on economic growth and population development".

The impact of Sweden’s broadband policies has been clearly seen at hospitals in Solleftea and Boras, in remote areas of the country. The two hospitals have reduced their radiology costs by 35per cent by using broadband to send images to Spain for diagnosis. The hospitals saved more than  €800,000 a year, according to a European Union report. Moreover, patient waiting times also halved as neither hospital had been able to recruit a full-time radiologist and previously relied on visiting locums.

Meanwhile almost half of prescriptions in Sweden are transferred from the doctor to the pharmacy electronically via the national e-health network. The system saves time for doctors, reduces errors and offers patients more flexibility when collecting medications. E-prescribing generated a net economic benefit of €95million in 2008 alone. Sweden is also developing a national electronic health records system to deliver further service improvements and cost savings.

E-health is only one area where Sweden is seeing both social and economic benefits from its national broadband strategy. It is also leading the way in terms of telecommuting and distance education, says Australian telecommunications analyst Paul Budde.

While other countries are experiencing high broadband take-up rates, co-ordinated national policies and universal access are required - such as in Sweden and now Australia - for countries to  see the full benefits of a national broadband network, Mr Budde says.

"What we see in other countries are pockets of high-speed broadband, but to fully reap the benefits of high-speed broadband requires a ubiquitous network. You have to offer services such as healthcare and education on a national scale," he says.

National broadband policies must be viewed as a trans-sector concept, according to Mr Budde, bridging  areas such as healthcare, education and "smart grids" that connect utility infrastructure.

"Sweden is a great example of showing what structural separation of the infrastructure can do," Mr Budde says. "They have over 35 competing companies utilising the basic fibre-based infrastructure. This has led to unprecedented innovations that in turn have resulted in a large number of broadband services in the healthcare, education and energy sectors. Australia has been a relative latecomer to a more competitive telecoms environment. However, it is catching up fast and more than a hundred healthcare, community and education projects have now been launched in connection with the NBN. All these projects have the opportunity to be upscaled as the NBN grows."

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