Opinion: NBN role committee a Dixer of a time

Parliamentary committees can be riveting, but sometimes they are downright inane

Parliamentary inquiries and committees are rarely, if ever, objective. They are, after all, made up of politicians who must ultimately toe the party line in any and all public circumstances.

It was never expected, for example, that a Liberal-biased inquiry into the National Broadband Network (NBN) — chaired by the ever-entertaining Senator Ian McDonald — would come to any conclusions besides a negative one. The final report, delivered after four interim documents, 41 submissions and 19 public hearings, delivered a highly predictable judgement — give us a cost-benefit analysis.

The more recent Senate inquiry into the adequacy of privacy provisions for Australians online proved similarly predictable. The inquiry into data retention, called for by Green Senator Scott Ludlam, unanimously called for the government to justify its proposals and — again — the notion of a cost-benefit proposal was raised.

However, whereas the aforementioned committees at least involved substantive terms of reference and extensive discussion of the proposals involved, the one currently before the House of Representatives appears to be worthy of Dorothy Dix herself.

I am talking about the parliamentary inquiry into the “role and potential of the National Broadband Network”. Now doesn’t that sound dandy.

To bring those who have, until now, had better things to do up to speed, the terms of reference outlined for the committee encompass exploration of:

  • the delivery of government services and programs;
  • achieving health outcomes;
  • improving the educational resources and training available for teachers and students;
  • the management of Australia's built and natural resources and environmental sustainability;
  • impacting regional economic growth and employment opportunities;
  • impacting business efficiencies and revenues, particularly for small and medium business, and Australia's export market;
  • interaction with research and development and related innovation investments;
  • facilitating community and social benefits; and
  • the optimal capacity and technological requirements of a network to deliver these outcomes.

I don’t propose to quiet any discussion of the potential applications afforded by the increased bandwidth of the $36 billion network currently roaring through our country. Without the applications, the fibre being installed into homes and small businesses everywhere will be little more than additional plumbing, without the practical utility to flow across it.

More importantly, the discussion must flow beyond the faster YouTube browsing and social networking that Tony Abbott would have you believe the NBN is good for. It must also extend beyond the fast downloads, the high-definition video streaming and IPTV possibilities that make up any geek’s wet dreams.

It must flow to the industries that stand best to benefit for it — e-health, education, research, e-commerce. Despite an inevitable gritting of teeth whenever the “digital economy” is mentioned, it’s a factor that must be considered and one that NBN Co itself has to date been reluctant to involve itself in; communications minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, himself has referred to the wholesaler as plumbers who are only beginning to realise the important communicative role they have in the public sphere.

But all of this is a discussion that is yet to be had in the committee hearings. There has been an attempt; there have been 227 submissions to the inquiry, and 14 public hearings scheduled, vastly outdoing the research and background most parliamentary committees are afforded.

However, during the nine public hearings held to date, the discussions have been downright trivial. They range from “Why doesn’t my town get fibre?” to “When do I get fibre?” and the frequent and ever-valuable, refrain: “The NBN is great.”

As riveting as some discussions have been so far, few have managed to get through their half-hour timeslot before devolving into the technical aspects of the network we here love to write about but have a generally soporific effect on the committee (and general public). The NBN is here, it’s rolling out and even the opposition has retreated from its position of scrapping the entire project; these are all givens. Where are the applications?

Short of providing plenty of information for a glossy brochure on the benefits of the NBN, the parliamentary inquiry seems to do little more than waste the time of those involved; time better spent actually preparing for an infrastructure that we hope will change the way we do business and, ultimately, live.

For now, though, I’m beginning to sympathise with the concerns of NBN Co chief executive, Mike Quigley, concerns over government oversight. With enabling legislation through, the government needs to move into its more permanent role of overseeing and regulating its wholly owned corporation as it does the job politicians have asked it to.

Follow James Hutchinson on Twitter: @j_hutch

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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Tags National Broadband Network (NBN)Mike QuigleyHouse of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure

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