In years to come Malcolm Turnbull will be remembered as the communications minister who, under an instruction from then prime minister Tony Abbott, ‘demolished’ Labor’s 21st Century National Broadband Network. But another prominent politician had earlier inflicted enduring damage to any nascent aim of becoming an innovation nation and set us back in an emerging digitally enabled world. Are we heading towards a repeat of this mistake in telecommunications policy?
Australia invented the technology underpinning Wi-Fi, along with the ‘black box’ flight recorder, ultrasound scanners and the heart pacemaker – just to mention some of our globally recognised innovations. We have an enviable track record when it comes to technology.
And yet, apparently Prime Minister Scott Morrison just wants us to adopt other country’s technologies these days. This week he told us, “we’re not trying to create the next Silicon Valley here in Australia. That’s not it. We’ve just got to be the best at adopting (other country’s technology)”.
Australia’s commercial television networks are in trouble. Not simply because of the Coronavirus but because they failed to develop effective strategies to counter the arrival of Netflix and other ‘streaming’ platforms – something anticipated long before it happened.
Last week the federal government threw the struggling networks a financial lifeline. It includes subsidies and deferred or waived fees and it reflects savage advertising revenue declines. Sadly for the viewing public however, local drama, children’s and documentary content quotas have been suspended.
As most of us are holed-up in our homes working or studying online as a response to the Coronavirus a bunch of politicians ignored medical advice and gathered together in Canberra. Perhaps it’s time for a virtual parliament?
Of course this would require that we first fix the NBN so that all our elected representatives and their advisors have decent broadband at home and in their electorate offices.
The reality is many families will struggle with inadequate telecommunications, especially those NBN customers with the FTTN (fibre-to-the node) service delivered over old copper wires.
To be fair to Mr Fletcher, the culprits who destroyed a nascent 21st Century broadband network – Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Mitch Fifield – have all gone offline, so to speak. They’ve left parliament and they left behind something smelling like what comes out of the wrong end of the elephant in the room.
Telstra’s decision to only offer a maximum 50Mbps plan to more than half its NBN customers is another setback in the quest for #BetterBroadband and further vindication of Labor’s plan to make Australia what Malcolm Turnbull subsequently dubbed an “innovation nation”. It’s the latest fulfilment of a highly political decision by Tony Abbott to instruct Turnbull to demolish NBN Co.
If anyone knows about good and bad broadband it’s Telstra. And they know that anything other than fibre is second best.
You know the tune, so let’s all sing along: Oh dear, what can the matter be?
Or, if you prefer AC/DC, “Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap”. As we approach the NBN’s nominal completion date of June this year the decision to dump 21st Century fibre and cobble something together using old copper wires and run-down Pay TV cables has left too many Australians humming a very sad tune.
The release this week of the latest financial report from NBN Co underscores what a debacle we have on our hands.
Last week submissions closed for a parliamentary inquiry into the National Broadband Network. TelSoc, of which I recently became vice-president, lodged a submission prepared by a working group of highly qualified industry experts. Unless the federal Government takes notice of two key recommendations millions of consumers are destined to continue suffering second rate broadband for years to come.
This massive infrastructure project is scheduled to be completed by mid-year, although as I have previously pointed out that’s at best a theoretical deadline given that replacing about a third of the fixed-line network will arguably need to begin almost immediately.
A report released by communications minister Paul Fletcher has confirmed that so-called ‘Internet piracy’ declined dramatically following the arrival of Netflix and other online streaming services – debunking the need for ‘site-blocking’ laws controversially introduced following a well-funded lobbying effort by local representatives of the Hollywood studios. In the same week NBN Co announced it is cutting in half its pricing for new connections to encourage reluctant consumers to sign up to its troubled broadband service.
What these two incidents suggest is we need politicians to engage more with industry experts when making technology-related policy decisions. We also need IT / telecommunications groups to do more to ensure the government of the day is well advised. And we need more mainstream media focus on keeping everyone better informed.
Earlier in the week Telstra chair, John Mullen, conceded the company must accept some of the blame for our flawed National Broadband Network due to its ‘recalcitrance’ back in 2007/2008 when it submitted a petulant bid that didn’t meet the requirements of the government tender to build a nationwide network. However, he then went on to attack the project, in particular drawing attention to NBN Co’s decision to compete more activley in the so-called ‘enterprise’ market – the provision of wholesale rather than retail products.
It’s all very well, if not ironic, for Mr Mullen to complain about a company offering a competitive service but let’s not forget that one of the biggest impediments to NBN Co’s financial performance, and thus its overall success, is the extremely generous terms of the deal the Coalition did with Telstra when Malcolm Turnbull followed Tony Abbott’s instruction to ‘destroy’ the NBN and opted to buy access to Telstra’s old copper wire network and its ageing Pay-TV cables.
In my view, NBN Co ought to consider renegotiating the deal with Telstra over access to their ‘pits and pipes’ and in return agree not to compete in the enterprise market. And Telstra should repair the damage it caused by negotiating in good faith – for Australia’s sake.