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Issue #1473      22 September 2010


Broadband storm set to break

The majority of Australians have embraced the concept of a world class National Broadband Network (NBN). It would be an epoch-marking piece of infrastructure; a natural monopoly which, if they were to be consulted, that same majority of voters would surely prefer to have wind up under public ownership and control. However, the debate about to be unleashed in parliament and in the public sphere will question the very concept of the NBN, whether or not it is a viable project or (as Opposition leader Abbott describes it) “an icon of waste and incompetence.” The pressure will be on in the weeks and months to come and the people of Australia, particularly those in neglected regional and remote areas, will have to stand up for what they voted for.

The looming showdown indicates that Abbott and the Coalition are going negative in the new parliament. They will serve the corporate interests they represent and resist the desire on the part of Australian voters for a new style of more open politics. Malcolm Turnbull is back on the Opposition’s front bench and his first task in his new communications shadow portfolio will to be to “demolish” the NBN. They will be pedalling an “NBN 3.0” – a hybrid of technologies with an emphasis on improved wireless and satellite services. It is the old hands off, “leave it to the markets” approach that has left most technical experts in the field pretty cold.

There are plenty of questions about the NBN that deserve answers. Where is the huge skilled workforce needed for the eight-year project going to come from? Why should Telstra be given $100 million to retrain employees to work on fibre networks? Why couldn’t a government taskforce be created to facilitate that transition and coordinate the training of other workers? What control will there be to prevent Internet Service Providers upsetting the undertaking to keep prices the same for clients in the city and the bush? Will the priority given to the rollout in regional areas be preserved throughout the project or simply showcased initially to keep independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor onboard?

These are not the questions the Opposition and its backers will be pushing. Their questions will be couched in such a way as to suggest the NBN was a political fix devised onboard an aircraft bound for Canberra – a folly for which generations will pay a hefty price. Where’s the business plan? Why do we need a Ferrari when a Commodore will get us where we need to go? The rather unimaginative line of attack disguises not so much a lack of understanding of the spiralling demand for communications capacity but rather a preference for a sector currently delivering strong profits for the existing main players. If the Libs have their way Telstra would not be obliged to split their wholesale and retail arms. They would privatise the assets of the National Broadband Network Co forthwith.

The Rudd/Gillard government deserves some credit on these issues. The pilot for the project in regional Tasmania has been delivered on time and on budget. A $23 million implementation study from consultants McKinsey & Co and KPMG found that the NBN does have a strong business case. The government has rejected advice to leave it to the private sector to complete the initial upgrade of wireless and satellite services to remote locations envisaged under the plan. Given all of this, the ultimate objective of the government of stepping out of the scene and leaving the magnificent asset to private cowboy operators is all the more unacceptable given the effort and investment by the working people of the country.

The weeks to come will be challenging as the proponents of various upgrades to the county’s broadband capacity take centre stage. The reactionary policy will be made to appear progressive. “Why not spend the $43 billion on serious measures to tackle climate change?” and so on. The pedlars of this snake oil are not serious. It is in the interests of the Australian people, and particularly those of us who live in regional and remote areas, to continue to push for a national, publicly owned broadband network and all those other demands that do not suit the transnationals.

Next article – Indigenous health must not fall through the gaps in the ministry

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