Yesterday's $11 billion non-binding financial agreement will give NBN Co access to Telstra's communications network and duct structure. This is not just good for Telstra – it is good for the nation.
Why? Well, there are two main reasons. First, the previous federal government handed Telstra shareholders an investment dud by selling the telco on the basis of blind ideology. The lack of forethought about the resulting industry structure not only hindered the deployment and take-up of new technologies, but it locked in old technologies and prevented innovation – both in infrastructure and the use of high bandwidth technologies.
Second, after more than a decade of neglect, not only is our infrastructure outdated, but our students and workforce are a decade behind in the skills they would have gained had we had access to adequate broadband years ago. The myth about digital natives being 'naturally' tech-savvy provided a policy blind-spot that has left many Australians in the digital wilderness. But yesterday's agreement is the first real sign of progress toward the digital future we should be enjoying right now.
While Minister Conroy's press release rehashes the NBN Implementation Study's assertion that the NBN “would still be financially viable even without the participation of Telstra”, only a fool would try to broadband the nation without the cooperation of one of the most innovative companies in the world. The agreement is the closest thing to the win-win solution the government was no doubt dreaming about in the lead-up to this year's federal election.
Telstra shareholders will be watching the stock market to see if their investment recovers from the years of regulatory uncertainty perpetuated by governments from both sides of politics. As Telstra will be able to divest its wholesale operations without destroying its market value, it is difficult to think the market will react anything but positively.
The creation of USO Co will help, too. Removing the Universal Service Obligation (USO) – a remnant of technological socialism which has done nothing but act as a handbrake on new technologies - will enable Telstra to focus on services which are not predetermined by politicians. Hopefully this will also free-up USO monies currently provided by Telstra's competitors and put the social responsibility for essential communications services back where it belongs – with government.
Nonetheless, the inevitable time-lag between now and when the details of the agreement are finalised will not help fix Australia's shortage of skills in using high bandwidth applications. The benefits of some of these technologies are yet to impact upon the Australian workforce and most managers haven't a clue about the productivity improvements and cost-savings which can be gained through various collaborative communication alternatives.
Overseas, companies are less reliant on email as they move to using blogs, wikis and other social media applications to communicate with co-workers and customers. Hard skills in a particular technology are not important, but the soft skills, such as being able to operate in an environment where communication is (for the most part) out in the open, cannot be gained in the absence of technology.
Many executives who operate in these open communication environments suggest that the quality of work improves significantly as a direct consequence of openness. But in a country where bosses still suggest we blog with prudence or we shouldn't use social media at work, Australia is far behind the eight-ball.
And it is not just in the workplace. When I introduced blogs and wikis into my university teaching this year, many students found the technology quite confronting. But a few have spoken with their friends offshore and have discovered that overseas students have been using social media in education for many years.
The myth of the digital native in Australia is just that – a myth. But addressing the lack of skills is exacerbated by the lack of teachers capable of teaching with the technology, which in turn feeds into the lack digital skills in the workforce.
While the government argues that the “NBN is critical to securing Australia's international competitiveness”, some people still argue that the NBN has nothing to do with education. But a quick comparison of broadband plans in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia demonstrates just how far behind we really are.
Even Australians who have adequate access to high-speed broadband services are restricted by the amount they can download each month – hence how much they can participate in online education or other educative applications on a regular basis. But if you live in a suburb like Gungahlin in the ACT, even the most expensive wireless plan won't fix the problems of the old network, let alone provide you with adequate download limits to upgrade your qualifications online.
NBN Co's deal with Telstra should usher in a vast improvement in the quality of access, price, speeds and bandwidth as the old copper network is phased out and customers are migrated to the NBN's fibre. But whether the regulatory certainty the agreement is designed to provide for Telstra will be sufficient to satisfy other players in the communications industry remains to be seen.
Yesterday's agreement gives the Rudd government a chance to put the NBN back on the election agenda. At a time when the Opposition is still talking about scrapping the NBN, there will be much rejoicing in Labor circles. But it is also good news for the Australian economy and the education revolution. Who knows, Australians might even join the information revolution in a few years time?