In 1851 the colonial governments of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia agreed to standardise their rail systems – a win for commonsense that would avoid any problems if their railway systems ever managed to meet.
Within two years the New South Wales government had abandoned that agreement and went ahead with totally different railway gauge. A 150 years later Australia is still struggling with the consequences of one dumb infrastructure decision.
Today, in the second decade of the 21st Century, Australia is on the cusp of making a similar ill thought out choice with the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure. Instead of railway gauges, Australia now risks having a telecommunications change of gauge at the end of every suburban street and, in some cases, having properties on one street having to rely on four different communications technologies.
The proposal of using existing infrastructure will saddle the country with a hodge-potch of technologies. Some areas will get fibre while others will have to make do with the Pay-TV cables and the bulk of the country will either keep the copper network or fight over shared wireless connections.
Some will have a mix of all of them – it’s not hard to see a scenario where four adjacent properties have to settle for totally different services due to the limitations of the different technologies.
At root of Australia’s telecommunications mess lies thirty years of political expedience, ill thought out ideology and downright incompetence posing as policy by the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments.
The Rudd government and Senator Conroy should at least be credited with trying to unscramble the mess created by previous Liberal and Labor administrations. In fact, the $36 billion price tag for the NBN is not particularly high when compared to other infrastructure spending.
Australian governments spend over $15 billion on road construction and maintenance – the entire budget over ten years for rebuilding the communications network to 21st century standards is the equivalent to two years spending on roads.
Writer Richard Chirgwin recently measured the capital expenses incurred by Telstra and Optus over the last decade at $47 billion, while that includes investment in mobile networks it illustrates the cost of connecting the nation to fibre are not excessive.
Operating that fibre network also appears reasonable with NBN Co expecting to spend $3 billion a year on running and maintaining the network. This compares to Telstra’s $15 billion in operating costs in 2012.
In talking about the 2013 election being a referendum on the NBN, the Labor party’s policy in the 2010 poll was clearly to deliver fibre to the premises.
That policy won sufficient seats in Tasmania for the ALP to have a claim on government and it was the guarantee of broadband to the bush that swung the New South Wales independents to support the Gillard government.
The referendum on the NBN was the 2010 election and the matter is settled, which makes NBN Co’s chief executive Mike Quigley's opening a debate on the project’s construction last week all the more bizarre.
A fundamental problem
Having a debate about the scope of the project four years into the ten year, $30 billion undertaking exposes a fundamental problem with Australian governments and the nation’s methods for deciding infrastructure spending.
Any debate about the NBN’s scope should have been held four years ago. Had the communications minister held an open enquiry into the best options for a broadband network, the matter would have been settled before the project began.
To be fair to Senator Conroy, he’s not alone on ministerial thought bubbles trumping well-considered policy. The original mining tax that undid Kevin Rudd’s leadership was a similar brainwave and Julia Gillard’s panicked response to the miner’s objections was just as poorly thought out.
Ministerial thought bubbles translating into poor policy aren’t just a federal Labor phenomenon, the problem is also rife on both sides of politics at state levels.
Which brings us back to New South Wales and railways. In 2012, the Liberal state government announced it was going to build a railway link featuring tunnels that won’t fit the state’s existing rolling stock, mirroring nicely the debacles of the 1850s.
Today we might wonder what our wonderfully bewhiskered forbears were thinking when they messed the railways up, but one suspects if they could see the mess we’re creating today they would be scratching their beards with puzzlement.
We can only hope that if Australia does end up with a quadruple gauge broadband network, the 21st century is as kind to the lucky country as the last century has been.