Last week the current affairs program 4 Corners picked up the complex and rewarding topic of the National Broadband Network. I was reasonably new to the topic and came away with lots of insights. (you can still see it through iView)
The NBN is impossible to evaluate without knowing the recent history of telecommunications policy, the economic details of the plan and the underlying technical issues.
In short I came away with thinking that…
1) The federal governments of the last 15+ years have grappled with the complications of telecommunications in a country with a reasonably small market, large distances and a telecommunications industry that brew out of both. The decision to privatise Telstra didn’t gel well with the existing structural monopoly of the company and consequently the paradox of Telstra severely affected the birth of the NBN.
2) Regardless of the rhetoric of all sides the NBN is technically viable in its current form and is going to become the most crucial infrastructure project for Australia in the 21st century. Our technological demand on connectivity is rapidly growing and only fibre-optic cables can carry this demand over the long-term. It is a wonderful piece of nation building to roll this out to 95% of the country, connecting people across great geographical distances, enabling businesses, agriculture and the health care system to operate across vast areas, contributing to slowing further urbanisation that’s crippling cities and allowing regional and rural areas to strive, be able to compete and get equitable services.
3) I find the Opposition’s interference with the scheme malicious and Turnbull’s appeal to the base penny pinching instinct of already privileged city dwellers counterproductive. Because of the botched monopoly of Telstra and its hindrance to the NBN the government had no other option but to go ahead with the NBN on its own if it was to maintain its equitable nature and its quality. I struggle to recall any major political action in the last 18 years that was truly equitable and universal, the NBN might be one of the first for a long time. If it means a bit of cross-subsidy we should be proud as citizens that this is done with our tax money. Let’s tilt back a little the already existing structural inequalities that cripple Australia and are only becoming worse. Let’s support people in the bush who grow our food and remote industries that underpin our economic prosperity by giving them the basic tools they need to keep their lives going. This is only fair.
4) On the technical front our demand for more information flow is increasing. Despite having wireless technology there is no way to build substantial national capacity without fibre optics laid down across the country. All our iPhones and iPads rely on data points that in turn flow back into the general grid, satellites are not coping and cannot support the flow we demand of them. I can imagine a future very very soon where education, business, health care etc will rely ever more heavily on broadband, which in turn can help lower our carbon footprint in a country of great distances. This may not happen, but unless we have the infrastructure we cannot expect new applications and businesses harnessing this capacity and creating new ways of living that are more convenient and ecologically sound. I may not always agree with the direction of developments (I prefer face to face teaching at university instead of sending out instructions onto my remote students’ wireless devices) but it is a strong trend and we will have to adapt. The NBN will be the backbone of all of this.
5) And finally I was embarrassed to be agreeing with Senator Conroy throughout the program! Until now I have never agreed with him on anything and have considered his utterances stubbornly stupid, especially on internet censorship and media regulation. But here he’s actually talking sense and articulating the technical details with reasonable skill! Geez!! 😛
I’m really glad the NBN is already being rolled out in Tasmania. Yes, let’s start with those who are disadvantaged and work towards the more advantaged areas. Let’s roll it all out before someone or something cripples this development or before all the money goes to prop up primary industries who are already doing very well without taxpayers’ money funding their ‘adaptation’ to a carbon tax. Quick quick!