Like the NBN or not, let's make the most of it

In the case of the NBN there are much worse things the government could spend our money on

As the 2010 federal election finally came to a close this week technology and political commentators alike have centred their post-poll opinions around the most pivotal policy – the National Broadband Network. With Labor back in the driver’s seat the NBN is set to go ahead. It’s now time to forget the politics and get behind this advanced technology infrastructure project to make it a success.

With such a tight race between the two major parties, it’s easy to conclude the NBN was the deciding factor at the ballot box. There are many factors that decide a person’s vote of course – not least their affinity for the party leader – but with rural independents holding the balance of power the NBN’s benefit to the bush can’t be overstated, in addition to a surprise $10 billion development sweetener.

Cynics might argue both policies are consistent with Labor’s “why solve a problem strategically when you can throw money at it” method, however, in the case of the NBN there are much worse things the government could spend our money on.

The NBN naysayers have gone so far as to call the project a $43 billion white elephant.

Tony Abbott said the NBN is going to be “an absolute mine field of waste and incompetence”.

That’s not really being helpful Tony. Yes, the NBN is an expensive exercise, but the benefits to areas without broadband will be immediate. This has already been demonstrated in Tasmania.

There are so many examples of waste and incompetence “mine fields” perpetrated by both sides of Australian government politics I can’t begin to recall them here. Defence spending, the rise of the welfare state, bureaucracy, the list goes on and on. Tony, there are much worse things the government already does waste money on.

I have no doubt the government “means well” when it plans to build a national broadband network to the tune of $43 billion. And the federal opposition’s OPEL initiative – which is worth noting was conceived well before the NBN – is also in the best intentions basket.

So both sides of politics do have broadband advancement policies, but a combination of political scaremongering and rabid media coverage has led the public to believe it’s a case of “NBN or nothing”. In fact, Australian cities have a good level of broadband connectivity options be it fibre, DSL or wireless and this will continue to expand.

The key aspect is how efficient the NBN Co will be. Telco analyst Paul Budde, a strong supporter of the NBN, said immediately after the election result Labor still needs to be more transparent with its costings.

When NBN Co was first announced I shuddered to think how much money would be wasted on another government bureaucracy. If only we could have an NBN without the management overhead. Oh well, you can’t have everything.

There’s no doubt there will be waste, but if the output is beneficial then to a certain extent it is justified.

As for Labor’s “20,000” jobs rhetoric, that’s not really a good justification for any infrastructure project. That’s like saying “there are 20,000 more people on welfare”. The net effect of government jobs to the economy is not as great as the government would have us believe.

Leaving aside the fact that Australia has already lived – and seemingly failed to learn the impact of – a government communications monopoly, let’s turn our attention to the positive outcomes of our new NBN paradigm.

When the government first built out telecommunications infrastructure the net result was positive. Australia, with its sparsely populated land area, has one of the best landline telecommunication networks in the world.

Government direction built the telecommunications network and government direction will rebuild it in the form of the NBN.

Private industry competition in the ISP space has served the metropolitan areas well, but their failure to look to the underserved regional areas over the past decade makes a mockery of the “competition improves services” argument.

Even with Telstra now (moderately) regulated the other carriers have all but made a dent in the regional access market. The NBN is set to change all that.

Incidentally, Australia already has a world-class fibre broadband network that provides high-speed access to last mile premises distributed across the country. It’s called AARNet. If the government was serious about getting broadband to more schools and hospitals sooner (and with less bureaucracy) it could do worse than engage with AARNet to extend that network.

I wrote about AARNet snatching business from Telstra five years ago.

One can only imagine what could have happened in that time for the education and healthcare sectors. Instead we were left squabbling over whether or not to build an NBN for the benefit of the education and healthcare sectors.

Julia Gillard’s re-elected Labor government is coming off a record of a failed home insulation scheme, bungled school building projects, an ETS that never happened and a nascent NBN.

Let’s hope they get the last one right – there are so many benefits to be had with a largely familiar risk profile. Let the NBN march on!

Rodney Gedda is Editor of TechWorld Australia. Follow Rodney on Twitter at @rodneygedda. Rodney's e-mail address is Follow TechWorld Australia on Twitter at @Techworld_AU.

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Tags governmentJulia GillardbroadbandNBNTony AbbottLabor

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