Thursday, 30 April 2009

The NBN: Visionary Nation-Building or Bliss for Video Addicts?

It seems the NBN will solve all sorts of problems. But there are very different views on each side of the political divide. It depends on the potential benefits we perceive high-speed access to the Net will bring us.

Here is what the NBN will do, according to our political leaders:
Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy: Productivity benefits of smart grids (internet-enabled electricity grids), digital tracking of goods (e.g. RFID), new broadcasting opportunities, remote health diagnosis and patient monitoring, real-time freight management, video conferencing, telecommuting and advanced science and research applications.

The Opposition: A
faster network for downloading movies.
read more | digg story

These differing views beg the question: Should Australia spend $43 billion on the NBN?

But there are much larger issues at stake. What is the vision of the future we are moving toward? How will the NBN impact upon current industry structures? Can such divergent views on the value of high-speed connectivity help Australians benefit from the digital economy?

A look at Australian laws which set out the objectives of 'broadband' policy rarely include statements about the benefits to citizens beyond cheaper prices:
The Telecommunications Act 1997 focuses on:

(a) the long-term interests of end-users of carriage services or of services provided by means of carriage services; and

(b) the efficiency and international competitiveness of the Australian telecommunications industry.
Compare the above objectives to Canada's Telecommunications Act 1993:
It is hereby affirmed that telecommunications performs an essential role in the maintenance of Canada's identity and sovereignty and that the Canadian telecommunications policy has as its objectives:

(a) to facilitate the orderly development throughout Canada of a telecommunications system that serves to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the social and economic fabric of Canada and its regions;

(b) to render reliable and affordable telecommunications services of high quality accessible to Canadians in both urban and rural areas in all regions of Canada;
A common theme in Australia's 'broadband' policy for many years has been the lack of a clear vision. Further, Australian consumers have been generally ignored in the development of such policy. Leaving the fate of such important infrastructure in the political realm means that the divergent views of politicians will determine Australia's digital future.

Canada's approach is markedly different. For example, the CRTC has powers which enable the specialist regulator to forbear from regulating particular carriers, but the public must be consulted:
The Commission may, by order, exempt any class of Canadian carriers from the application of this Act, subject to any conditions contained in the order, where the Commission, after holding a public hearing in relation to the exemption, is satisfied that the exemption is consistent with the Canadian telecommunications policy objectives.
Canada's policy objectives go beyond Australia's focus on consumer prices. For example, the Telecommunications Act 1993 is designed to: 'respond to the economic and social requirements of users of telecommunications services'. Whether the wording of legislation makes a difference is worthy of debate, but the differences in citizen engagement are reflected in the words.

The point is that Australian consumers continue to be spectators, rather than participants, in the debate over our digital future. With political leaders at logger-heads over the purpose of high-speed network connectivity, what better time than to ask the people (who will ultimately pay for the NBN) what it is they actually want?

The NBN is certainly visionary. But will it really only benefit video addicts? At a time when 'evidence-based policy' is being thrown about to justify political decisions, listening to the citizens' voice in the debate is well overdue.

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio