Opinion: Neither party's policies are good enough

Isolated arguments on the respective broadband policies are diverting much needed-attention on developing industries for the future

The Labor party’s move to finally directly link healthcare with the National Broadband Network (NBN) is a welcome development, but may have come too late and does not go nearly far enough.

Ever since Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy announced the $43 billion NBN in April last year, the project has been dogged by claims it is simply too costly, is too interventionist in a free(ish) market, does not reflect demand and was formulated without a proper business case.

They said it would be the foundation of our digital economy and bring about innovation and advances in healthcare, education, energy, transport and so on.

But 15 months later and to the consternation of many, including industry bodies such as the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), we have only just heard the first real plan for utilising the fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) NBN.

Ever since the Election date was announced we have consistently heard people return to the question of why Australia needs an NBN that offers ubiquitous connectivity and provides a committed speed of 100Mbps over a network that can scale for the next 50 to 100 years, while also helping to rectify the highly criticised market structure.

Considering the capital outlay the project places on the taxpayer, it is a legitimate question - and one that should have, and for my mind could have with a bit of foresight - been answered a long, long time ago.

It is also the second massive failing the Labor government has made on the NBN – the first and one which is closely intertwined, was not going through the due diligence of creating a business case.

Yesterday, Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, used the Labor Party’s official campaign launch to announce the Government would use the speed and connectivity of the NBN to facilitate online consultations between patients and doctors via videoconferencing.

The $392.3 million initiative would see Medicare rebates issued from 1 July 2012 for some 495,000 online consultation services over four years to rural, remote and outer metropolitan areas.

The scheme would also include financial incentives for general practitioners and specialists to participate in delivering online services in tandem with an expansion of Labor’s GP after-hours helpline.

The new service would provide a link between a nurse or GP and the patient allowing online triage and basic medical advice to be delivered via videoconferencing.

A fund to support the training and supervision of health professionals on how to use online technologies would also be set up.

Finally the outline of a basic plan to actually stimulate services on the NBN emerges. Is it enough? Not even close.

Until the Labor party can articulate a solid economic development plan across the core industries it wants to build up that utilises the best aspects of the NBN – its scalability, its ubiquity, and its quality of service on what many believe is a natural monopoly infrastructure – it will continue to be haunted by attacks over technology choice, cost and market interference.

And, as I have said before, that is a real shame as the core concepts behind the NBN are very much worth pursuing if we accept the assumptions the digital economy and the use of information communication technologies will continue to expand in future and that Australia should be striving to place itself in a highly competitive position in the global economy.

But the problem is many still see the NBN as being only about consumer internet access and view the network in isolation from the rest of the economy, resulting in higher concerns over the cost question and persistent misinformation over the demand for higher speeds.

The blame for this lies fairly and squarely at Labor’s feet, with the Opposition propping them up from behind.

Instead of showing us what industries it will build up on the NBN to emulate, for example, the South Korean online games industry, which as a result of the country’s investment in a fibre network is now generating more than $US8 billion a year and more than $3.4 billion in home grown content produced annually, we get motherhood statements.

Instead of laying out the roadmap showing how an investment in a ubiquitous fibre network will go a long way to helping make Australia the financial centre of the Asia Pacific ahead of other countries like Singapore and Japan, as many of our financial institutions are hoping and which is a move that will bring considerable economic benefits, we get obfuscation.

Instead of explaining that by having ubiquitous, scalable infrastructure that is world class and which is recognised as being able to handle any existing workload, it removes a significant barrier to entry into many economic activities, we get shallow debates over how fast a consumer can download a movie.

While many argue that if you want the kind of speeds and services promised under the NBN you can already get it in Australia, this position neglects the significant premium individuals and organisations have to pay for the privilege and the mindset this creates.

Yes, many companies have rolled out their own fibre and some individuals are happy to pay the extra cost. But the beauty of having a ubiquitous fibre network is you can immediately remove this cost consideration and greatly increase the participation of SMBs and individuals in economic activities which they may have baulked at in the past.

The so-called Japanese “Suzuki housewives” are a prime example of this. Traditionally, most Japanese put their savings in the bank and did not look to other investments. And for many housewives – there still aren’t that many home husbands – participating in the economy was really out of the question; there was simply no avenue for them to get involved and most were stuck doing home duties.

Enter the investment into a FTTP network and online share and foreign exchange trading. As a direct result of vast swathes of the population having access to the same kinds of telecommunication services that are available to financial service organisations – and most rely on fibre networks because of the blazing speed and low latency - the Suzuki housewives (Suzuki is a common Japanese name like Smith in English) found economic enablement.

Since 1999 the number of Japanese trading on the markets has risen from a little under 300,000 to reach more than eight million today. They regularly account for roughly 30 per cent of all equity trades on one of the biggest stock markets in the world and now the number three economy. That’s a great result that can be attributed in considerable part to the investment in a world class broadband platform.

But we don’t get any of this kind of discourse from either party in Australia.

We don’t get dynamic policies for how investments in our telecommunications infrastructure could build up the Australian healthcare industry, for example, to be a global leader in the provision of remote services with high levels of innovation in both medical technology and procedures / treatment along with the creation a highly skilled workforce. And the same goes for education, transport, energy, and so on, and so on.

It’s all good and well for both parties to spout on about their broadband policies, but until they articulate how they intend to actually develop industries into global leaders, stimulate and support local innovation, enable equitable economic participation and foster a highly skilled workforce we will all suffer the opportunity loss while the rest of the world reaps the broadband benefits.

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