Abbott needs more than an NBN lite
As the national broadband network is rolled out the Coalition's point of difference on the project becomes less clear. Now is the time for Tony Abbott to release some solid details of what he plans to do.
Over the last few years we have seen that there is more or less bipartisan support for the structural separation of Telstra and for the fixed wireless broadband and satellite networks – in the case of the latter, at least support for the need for such a service. There is also acceptance of the fact that NBN Co is here to stay, albeit perhaps subject to change.
A key remaining difference is that the current NBN is based on the superior and future-proofed FttH infrastructure, while to save costs the Coalition favours an FttN solution, which eventually would also need to be upgraded to FttH but which would be cheaper as an interim solution.
However, regardless of what the parties agree and don’t agree on, any technology solution will need to be based on a clear vision of the future for Australia in relation to the digital economy, e-health, tele-education, M2M, digital media and so on; and on the role of ICT in all of this. And this will need to be underpinned by sound policies – what the Coalition’s position is on end-user affordability and ubiquitous access to the new services that will become available in the age of the digital economy.
Talking about these technologies without having any policy, plan or vision on these issues makes that debate rather fruitless.
In relation to the current NBN there is a clear national vision, and it is seen as national infrastructure to support the digital economy. For that purpose a National Digital Economy Strategy has been developed which has already resulted in close to a hundred local and regional initiatives in relation to small business applications, e-health, tele-educations, energy efficiency, regional economic development, disability services, etc.
So it is very clear that the current NBN is not there simply to deliver fast internet access. BuddeComm has often argued that if that were the case why bother to invest such a large sum of taxpayers’ money on it? However, the fact that it is seen as national infrastructure, in the same category as electricity, water, gas, roads, etc, makes it a totally different issue – one which most certainly warrants significant government investment, as has been the case in all other national infrastructure projects, especially at the start of such projects.
The problem we have about the suggestions, comments and criticism from the Coalition is that so far we have no idea what their vision is on these matters.
Do they see the need for a transformation towards a digital economy, e-health, tele-education, energy efficiency, etc? Do they believe that ICT has a role to play in this process? And, if so, what does that role have to be?
If they were to present a vision on this we could debate what would be the best way to technically enable this transformation. If we know what their views are we can actually start putting some data and facts around the issues. We could see what is needed for their version of the digital economy, e-health, tele-education, energy efficiency, and what the required infrastructure needs to be. Only at that point in time should we make decisions about issues such as technologies.
If the Coalition finally comes up with their vision let us then see if their solutions differ from the ones that we, as a country, are currently pursuing around the NBN, the national digital economy strategy and the convergence review.
It would be rather strange if we were to come up with totally different solutions since, in the end, everybody else – the companies, regulators, experts and others who have been involved in shaping policies and strategies over the last five years – will also need to be involved in the Coalition’s decision-making process. Based on such an inclusive approach the outcomes will probably involve a difference in flavour rather than a difference in fundamental concepts. Looking around the world, the overall high-level policies in all of these sectors are very similar – this includes the views of the UN, OECD, World Bank, etc. Implementation is a different matter altogether, and countries have differed in their implementation strategies, based on their political, economical, cultural, financial, geographical and social environments.
The Coalition has been asking for cost benefit analyses but if we don’t know what they want to achieve with their flavour of the NBN how can we come up with a cost benefit analysis? Cost benefits of what? The NBN roll out will cost – in taxpayer's money – just over $100 per person per year over the roll out period, most people will agree that the social, economic and lifestyle benefits will be many times more than this.
We can only begin to seriously consider the Coalition’s position on the NBN if we know what their vision is, and what their policies are. Until that time it is just a lot of politicking with very little substance.
It would also be good if during this period the Coalition engaged with the industry on these issues. It would be a pity if their vision was solely developed in their ivory tower in Canberra.
What has been missing so far is a willingness on the part of the Coalition to engage in an industry-wide consultation process, perhaps the reason for that is such a process would process will fail as the Coalition is not in any way trying to form an opinion. At this stage their opinion seems already to have been formed, and in relation to the FttH versus FttN debate, for example, they are just trying to back their position, without basing that position on any plan or vision. Evidence pointing to the contrary is systematically shot down.
And, sadly, nothing is easier than shooting down social, economic or financial analyses, especially in the context of the complex issues the world is presently facing. In all of these situations the availability of data is limited because of limited history and limited development.
That is where vision and leadership comes in, and we can’t wait for the Coalition to show us what they can do.
Paul Budde is the managing director of BuddeComm, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy company, which includes 45 national and international researchers in 15 countries.