Australia cannot afford to repeat the mistakes it has made in past public infrastructure developments, warned the deputy secretary of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy at the third annual Broadband Australia Conference in Sydney today.
The DBCDE's Abul Rizvi opened the conference with an evangelical presentation of what the National Broadband Network might deliver for Australian innovation, industry and the economy. He also took a critical look at the history of public infrastructure development in Australia, warning that construction of the NBN must avoid mistakes of the past.
Rizvi said Australia is on the verge of the most exciting infrastructure investment in its history, with government committed for the first time to building a national infrastructure in partnership with the private sector.
"[The NBN will be] a network that builds the venue for Australia's electronic marketplace - the digital economy - that will drive productivity gains for years to come; a network that supports innovation and enterprise; a network that provides the channel for delivering education and health services over vast distances, breaking down isolation and disadvantage; a network that creates the pipeline that will convey vast quantities of commercial and private data over any distance, be it next door or the other side of the planet."
The opportunity to contribute to a project like this, Rizvi said, occurs maybe once a century. But he warned that the historical context of public infrastructure construction in Australia holds many lessons for government and proponents of the NBN.
"The history of infrastructure development in Australia is notable for ad hoc development, short term goals and lack of national vision," he warned, pointing to the example of the first rail services that began operating in Victoria in 1854.
"Federation came in 1901, but it wasn't until June 1995 that trains could travel between Brisbane and Perth and through the southern capitals on a standard gauge track. As an unnamed author lamented, 'sadly those who envisaged a nation, had not contemplated a national rail network'...these failings had serious implications for economic development, adaptability and innovation. The National Broadband Network must avoid such failings."
Rizvi also pointed to the construction of sewerage systems in Australia, stating that by 1972 only 17 percent of outer metropolitan Sydney had a sewer system.
"Other Australian cities were in similar states, and the Whitlam government was forced to address the problem...However great an achievement this was for the Whitlam government, it had taken Australia as a nation over 70 years to address what almost 100 years earlier had been seen as one of the most pressing problems of the day. The problem had been partially addressed, and then removed from the public consciousness - another failing we cannot afford to repeat with the NBN."
Rizvi compared the NBN to the benchmark for large scale public infrastructure development in Australia - the Snowy Mountains Scheme - which interlocked seven power stations and 16 major dams through 145km of trans-mountain tunnels and 80km of aqueducts. It took more than 100,000 workers from over 30 countries 25 years to build.
"As an economic and cultural force, the labour immigration that supported it changed forever many of our notions of national identity and how we work. I've heard Minister Conroy describe the NBN as a project rivaling the Snowy Mountains Scheme. But I suggest there is a case for the view that the NBN will exceed the Snowy Scheme in scale, importance and lasting benefit," he said.
Rizvi then detailed some of the major economic and societal benefits the NBN is expected to deliver, beginning in the area of health.
Australia faces an ageing population and a limited health workforce, resulting in a growing need to deliver health services across considerable distances.
"A proposal put forward at the recent 20/20 summit was for a version of FaceBook - a HealthBook - that Australians could use to manage their own health better," he said.
Health professionals could be provided with electronic access to patient information including high-res x-rays, medical imaging and other test results. Data could be shared amongst health professionals, and real time advice, health management and remote diagnosis could be offered via high quality video conferencing.