The ABC Online News headline on the 14th of September 2010 was pretty blunt: “Abbott orders Turnbull to demolish NBN”. In the article itself then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is quoted as saying: “The Government is going to invest $43 billion worth of hard-earned money in what I believe is going to turn out to be a white elephant on a massive scale”.
Fast forward five years and the cost of the Coalition’s NBN is now put at $46-56 billion, with many experts maintaining that this significantly understates the likely real cost. Confusion and disagreement reign as to how long it will take to complete our much needed broadband rollout.
We’ve moved from a state-of-the-art fibre to the premises (FttP) strategy to the so-called Multi-Technology Mix (MTM), which heavily relies on using the ageing Telstra copper network and the not so old, but not very modern, Hybrid Fibre-Coaxial (HFC) networks originally built for pay television. Both will require considerable remediation work before they are fit for purpose and there is a solid argument to be put that in the end we’ll have to replace much of them at some point anyway.
Meanwhile, we are told that our future rests on innovation. Internet Australia agrees. We have consistently drawn attention to NBN issues in this context, including the fact that we are way down the list of broadband enabled countries. Average connection speeds of 7.8Mbps saw Australia sitting at 46th position on global rankings in the third quarter this year. Surely an innovation nation needs to do better than that?
Much is being made of the lessons we can learn from countries such as Israel and Singapore. Fair point. However, what has allowed them both to become world leading technology hubs is a broad consensus on that being a national priority. To achieve our potential as a digitally enabled society we need a road map and consensus among all parties on the direction we should take. Underpinning that must be a speedy completion of the NBN.
This year saw the establishment of the Digital Transformation Office, modelled on an organisation of the same name and with the same purpose in the UK. The DTO is charged with streamlining access to government services online. This is a worthy objective, however Internet Australia’s concerns were raised when a visiting expert from the UK highlighted the potential downside from moving government service provision online. The message was that there have been both winners and losers over there. It is fine for people who have access to the Internet and are digitally savvy, but disadvantaged groups and individuals who are not connected can struggle to get access to essential government services.
2016 is the National Year of Digital Inclusion. See www.godigi.org.au. What better time to acknowledge that the NBN is not only necessary for our economic future it is also critical for our social development?
I’ve heard it said that Malcolm Turnbull tried to appear to be following his leader’s instruction to kill the NBN while actually doing his best to make sure that it survived. If that’s the case, then now, delivered to the top job, can we hope to see our new prime minister show his true colours? Will the highly regarded ‘tech head’ reverse the Abbott Government’s half-hearted approach to broadband just as he has reversed a number of other high profile, but unpopular, policies of his predecessor?
Sadly, the signs are not great. As internationally renowned industry expert, Paul Budde, was quick to observe there was scant mention of the national broadband network in the Government’s Innovation Statement this month. Others have argued that the MTM option was a political solution not a technology solution. If that’s the case then we should put politics aside for the sake of the nation and get on with building the NBN.
Opposition spokesman Jason Clare has indicated that a future Labor government would roll out more FttP, while conceding that it would not, immediately at least, abandon MTM where construction was under way or MTM had been deployed. Surely such an approach would appeal to Malcom Turnbull? Compromise and a bipartisan strategy might just be the answer.
It appears that one of the roadblocks in recent times has been that ‘big business’ either doesn’t get it, or hasn’t wanted to rock the boat by telling the Coalition (especially under Prime Minister Abbott) that we need the NBN and we need it ASAP. Now’s the time for the peak industry bodies and the country’s ‘top business leaders’ to speak up. We didn’t argue over the need to provide other essential services such as roads, rail, water and power, so why are we doing it over this piece of critical 21st Century infrastructure?
We can continue to debate technology choices, but we cannot wait any longer to get Australians connected. History will ultimately reveal the best Internet delivery technology for a vast country like ours. However, history will also certainly judge us poorly if we lag behind in the next era of global innovation because we failed to provide an open and accessible Internet underpinned by ubiquitous high speed broadband.
Laurie Patton is CEO of Internet Australia, the peak body representing internet users and a chapter of the global Internet Society – www.internetsociety.org