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Telstra gets it right - again

Telstra's decision to speed-up its broadband services in major metropolitan centres is good for Australia.
But Telstra has been getting it right for some time and the government hasn’t noticed.
Telstra put broadband on the political agenda. Telstra suggested that local governments should be involved in deploying broadband networks. Telstra refused to be part of the one-size-fits-all solution. And Telstra has taken the first step to fix Australia’s broadband woes. It’s time the federal government took notice.

In the lead-up to the 2007 election, Telstra said that Australia was lagging in broadband take-up and speeds. Telstra blamed the federal government for regulatory uncertainty and launched a public campaign for change. But even with a new government, Australia is getting more of the same – a single solution to a problem which requires multiple approaches.

When Sol Trujillo suggested that local councils should partner with the telco to develop local broadband networks, nobody listened. Professor Gans suggested a few years ago that there was a local imperative for broadband deployment. But local councils said ‘we don’t do telecommunications’ and journalists said that Professor Gans’ idea was ‘left-field’. It’s only left-field because the idea of a single solution is so entrenched.

Observers of communications networks will notice how these networks resist central control. Yet central control is exactly what the federal government is trying to implement. Telstra’s recent move to develop an Alternative Broadband Network (ABN) provides more than one solution. This is a good thing - it is the shake-up we had to have.

Australia's long history of centrally-controlled, top-down communications policy is inadequate in an era of convergence. The government presumes to know what end-users desire. With a public sector which is not allowed to access major broadband applications (such as social networking tools) in the workplace, it begs the question:
How would the government know?
The assumption in the Australian way of doing communications policy is 'build it and they will come'. But this model specifically ignores end-users and assumes that a single national solution will solve our broadband woes. Telstra-bashing has been fashionable but the company has few options in a market structure created by the federal government. Trujillo’s offer to enter into joint ventures with local councils was an opportunity lost. Rather than bring the infrastructure closer to the people, the NBN is simply more of the same.

Trujillo says ‘there will be a technology mix to deliver services’. This is necessary. Different users of broadband have different usage habits and requirements. Nobody has a crystal ball which tells us what the future of technology take-up and usage will be. Historically, secondary uses of technology created demand in applications far removed from the original purpose. Attempting to centrally control the deployment of broadband networks limits their potential.
Telstra may well be attempting to ‘one-up’ the government, but if not Telstra, then who else?
Regulatory uncertainties have reduced many innovative firms to second-mover status for far too long. Delaying the announcement of the NBN provider adds more uncertainty to the market. But it is inappropriate to blame the regulators for the current state of affairs. The regulatory function simply puts the government’s policy into practice. Regulators pride themselves on their strict application of policy, so revamping the way policy is developed should receive more attention. Getting it right means mediating the historical legacies and enabling a dynamic digital economy. Government policy, not handing out billions of dollars on an outdated approach which is doomed from the start, is where the focus should be.

The role of community groups and local councils in developing communications policy is for the most part overlooked. Indeed, government funding for broadband deployment specifically excludes local councils. Canada provides an appropriate comparison: it is a large, sparsely populated federal system with similar legacies. Yet according to the OECD and the World Bank, Canada leads Australia in broadband take-up and speeds. The lesson is that the Canadian federal government funded local solutions to local problems and local governments got involved.

Accusing Telstra of ignoring the ‘bush’ when it speeds up its metropolitan networks is misplaced. The Australian way of doing communications policy is to blame. Telstra is what it is because the federal government made it that way. Responsibility for broad-banding remote regions falls squarely on the shoulders of government. It is time the federal government provided policy leadership beyond the one-size-fits-all paradigm. The federal government should seriously consider the possibilities presented by Telstra’s ABN. This requires first and foremost a break from ‘business as usual’.