NBN's benefits not being correctly sold to the public

Broadband experts argue that selling the National Broadband Network (NBN) on speed, rather than social benefits, is the wrong approach

The Federal Government must do a better job of publicly clarifying the objectives of its National Broadband Network (NBN), attendees at the Communications and Policy Research Forum 2011 have heard.

Speaking at the forum in Sydney, Canadian broadband researcher Catherine Middleton of Ryerson University, said there was a disconnect between the NBN as ‘infrastructure’ and the way that it was being promoted to the public.

“To get widespread take-up [of NBN services] it needs to be much more than just about the network. I think part of the challenge now is that services are being sold in terms of 12 up and one down… but the public doesn’t really think about internet services in those terms; it is really about ‘what can I do?’

“People want to Skype with their families, watch television, use Facebook and upload pictures quickly – this is how people think about services. We run into a challenge with the technical focus when what we are trying to do is sell a much broader vision of what people can do.”

By way of example, Middleton pointed to Canada’s Alberta SuperNet – a high-speed broadband network accessed directly by government agencies to deliver video conferencing, education and telehealth services.

“That speaks to the role of government as an anchor tenant,” she said. “Not only does it develop services, but it uses them extensively. It also seems to have a much clearer vision of how to access these services – those that aren’t accessed through a service provider.

“Much of the focus [with the NBN] is on faster internet and not the potential of service.”

Middleton said this was an issue in that faster broadband was already available to much of Australia via existing technologies, such as HFC and VSDL/FTTN. Further, current demand for faster internet was relatively limited.

Responding to Middleton’s comments, telecommunications consultant, David Havyatt, said discussion on telehealth in particular had been limited as health service relied on ubiquity of service – something that given the early days of the NBN built-out, was not yet present.

“There would be a negative affect if you tried to promote those kinds of services until you have ubiquity,” he said. “It is premature to have [telehealth] as an upfront service…”

Also presenting at the forum, Justin Jameson of Venture Consulting said the Federal Government needed to better clarify whether the NBN was a public good, or was a financial investment on the behalf of taxpayers.

“The way the NBN has been structured in Australia creates a tension that doesn’t need to be there, between policy objectives on the one hand and financial objectives on the other” he said.

“The government hasn’t made the choice to decide to whether to make the NBN a public good with uncertain benefits or whether it is a sensible financial investment… and by not making that decision in an open and transparent way, and then promoting the NBN on the basis of that decision, it has [caused these problems].”

Pointing to New Zealand, Jameson also suggested Australia, and its taxpayers, could benefit from the adoption of some of the country’s approach to national broadband infrastructure.

“The New Zealand Government initially 100 per cent owns the equivalent of the NBN… then as commercial connections are sold the commercial partner pays for a connection,” he said.

“Each time they pay for the connection they buy back a portion of equity [in the Ultra Fast Broadband network] from the government… so the government has built in a mechanism where it gets paid back its original equity investment, but it is not expected to make a return. If the network is financial unsuccessful it still retains control of it.”

Follow Tim Lohman on Twitter: @Tlohman

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