When electricity was first reticulated in the north-eastern United States in the 1880s, its primary application was street lighting. Doubters at the time argued against the investment of what would today be many billions of dollars in a lighting network. No-one, not even the science fiction writers of the time, imagined that we would rely on those same networks centuries later to cool our homes, cook our food, wash our clothes, charge our smartphones and enjoy culture and sport from around the world on big, flatscreen TVs.
Fortunately, the doubters were outnumbered in the 1880s. How disappointing it is to see such doubters at work again in Australia today.
For all the complexity of the great debate over the national broadband network, the arguments boil down to two worldviews.
We have those who say yes, invest now, because all the evidence points to exponentially increasing requirements for fast broadband. They recognise that if you’re reacting to the here and now, you’re too late; that the task of policy makers is not just to respond to contemporary needs but to understand that there is a future we cannot yet see; and that, in technology just as in education, we need to create flexible and dynamic capital to ensure we can take advantage of economic change.
Then we have the naysayers who want the broadband equivalent of replacing gas flames with electric lights on our streets. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s latest so-called 'cost-benefit analysis', performed by hand-picked former staffers and mates, exemplified this when it argued that the Coalition’s plan is enough to deliver faster download sufficient for today’s needs -- and the benefits of more speed to health and education will be limited.
In turn, Turnbull’s response narrowed his vision to the entertainment applications of broadband. Of course, Labor’s NBN would have delivered outstanding improvements in music, movies and games, but this was never really the point.
There are bigger benefits today. The ability to diagnose disease remotely in real time, with a patient in Bourke and a doctor in Brisbane, is not the stuff of science fiction. It’s available now. So is distance education with rich, live video lectures, data visualisation and demonstrations. But Australia’s current telecommunications network can’t adequately accommodate either, let alone the things we can’t yet imagine.
The ‘future we can’t yet see’ is the real point of universal high speed broadband: to accommodate the yet-to-exist broadband applications that will inevitably come down the track, forever disrupting and improving the way we educate our children, deliver health services, do business and make life more comfortable for our seniors.
And in preparing for that future, fast broadband delivered to each home and business also has the potential to turn delivery of services in a country like Australia on its head, eliminating the tyranny of distance.
This is technology promising transformation, not just change. But not with fraudband. The government’s own cost benefit analysis proves it. Slightly cheaper today? Yes. What the country really needs tomorrow? No.
Turnbull’s plan is the equivalent of building a one-lane highway when you know three lanes are going to be needed in a few years’ time. It will be cost-effective this year and efficient next year, but out of date as soon as an election is out of the way.
Why? Because Turnbull wants to incorporate Telstra’s old copper network into the NBN. In fact he boasts he’s negotiated with Telstra to acquire the copper network at “zero cost”.
This is the same 80-year-old network that Telstra’s own regulatory guru Tony Warren described as being “five minutes to midnight” in terms of its useful life at a Senate Committee hearing 11 years ago in 2003.
What was Telstra going to do with its copper network under Labor’s plan for the NBN? It was going to decommission it and let it rot because it wasn’t worth giving away. Now Telstra can hand over a network based on 19th century technology to taxpayers, who will have to pay the ever-escalating costs to maintain it.
It beggars belief that Turnbull will build Australia’s vital telecommunications future on a technology that frequently ceases to work when it rains!
Sure, the Turnbull NBN will cost less. Not much -- but a bit. But to gain that slight cost advantage, Turnbull gives up huge future revenues that Labor’s plan could have generated as households, business and public services increase their broadband usage and speed requirements to avail themselves of new applications.
The former merchant banker balancing those books while maintaining a reasonable rate of return to keep his substandard network off-budget will be quite a sight. Perhaps handing his whole mess off to Telstra, along with billions in public subsidies, will be his endgame. It’s hard to believe he really wants to be accountable for this network in a few years’ time.
Turnbull is obviously not unintelligent. So why is he bothering with all of this? So that he can make a political point: that he has a different plan to Labor’s. For the sake of that political differentiation -- and that leadership baton in his knapsack -- Turnbull risks the future competitiveness of our businesses, our economy and our people.
First published online at Business Spectator.