Thursday, 5 August 2010

Why I wish Turnbull was still Opposition Leader

Malcolm Turbull supported a *real* approach to climate change, he is not a hardcore boat-people-kicker, and he knows a thing or two about the value of high-speed broadband. I wish Turnbull was opposition leader so I would have a real choice this election. But instead, I have a choice between Dumb and Dumber.

It doesn’t matter who gets in at this election – Australia’s broadband future is well and truly stuffed. Whether you vote for Dumb or Dumber really won’t make a difference.

Australia could get a high-speed and far-reaching National Broadband Network censored by the Central Party in Canberra. Alternatively, the nation will have unrestricted access to the Net but on the tired old network provided by the same private sector that has never really had a reason to invest the necessary billions in the infrastructure. For years, the Coalition kept throwing consumer subsidies at businesses under a variety of names, only to see most of the money disappear in administrative costs with no improvement in connectivity.

If we don’t choose the Central Party option, then we will be returning to the dark decade of Howard’s Luddite regime. Only this time you won’t be able to blame it on the old dears and their lack of understanding of how this Internet thingy all works. But rest assured they will have a new name for the same schemes they used during their last reign.

People who question the value of high-speed broadband in Australia really need to wake up and smell the coffee. If you think Australians are anywhere near their counterparts in the rest of the developed world in terms of Web 2.0 skills (and this includes e-commerce), then you are kidding yourself. The lack of broadband access has simply crippled our skills development.

Why is it so?

There are two reasons why Australia has been so complacent about new communications technologies: 1) The myth of the digital native; and 2) Australian governments have done it this way since the time of the telegraph.

First, let’s look at the myth of the digital native. All hitherto Australian communications policy is based on the myth that digital natives will just pick up all this Internet stuff once they have access to it.

But as we approach a decade or more where our young people have not had real access to broadband services, the skills-gap between Australian workers and those offshore is huge.

I should know. I have been using Web 2.0 technologies in university classrooms with young Australians for a few years now. These same young Australians pick up the skills pretty quickly once they learn, but getting them started can be quite the uphill battle.

Over the years, some of my students have said that my approach to teaching is “left-field”, only to find out later that their friends in the US and Japan have been using blogs and wikis in the classroom for about ten years now. And yes, overseas students do this even in high school. But try implementing Web 2.0 technologies in Australian high school classrooms and see how long you last. The bureaucracy will hunt you down.

It is quite clear that young Australians engage with modern communications technologies. But this engagement is all about entertainment and it has nothing to do with productive work. I wish I could understand why workplaces are so reluctant to engage with Web 2.0 applications. You only have to use a wiki instead of a face-to-face meeting to develop a team document and you can see in two seconds how much more productive we could be if everyone knew how to use this stuff.

And this brings me to another point. Why is it only the ALP who bothered with the NBN? If any of the Liberals (or even the Nationals) knew how much more productive the minions would be if they could use Web 2.0 technologies, there would not be a single right-wing politician opposing the NBN. After all, they want to get as much out of each employee for the least cost possible. If only they knew.

But the really big question is why? Why do we do it this way here in Australia?

The answer is simple: we have always done it this way.

The first telegraph system was brought to Australia by Samuel McGowan, a Canadian who had studied under Morse. He thought he could become a rich businessman by bringing a new technology to Australia, much like he had seen the entrepreneurs do in North America. McGowan could not have been more wrong.

Colonial governments refused to let the private sector own the infrastructure. Indeed, the first private sector telegraph network was demolished by the colonial government of South Australia. The businessman who set up the network was promptly warned that only government could own the infrastructure. It never really happened again until the late 1980s when the Australian government said that maybe Optus could own a few phone lines.

But the thing that keeps happening is that Australia persists in locking itself into decades-long commitments to a particular technology – and always because government says so. And, ironically, always because the introduction of newer technologies was delayed by government for far too long in the first place.

So much so that by the 1950s, Australia was still relying on the telegraph long past its use-by date. Implementation of that horrible new instrument, the telephone, had rightly been delayed in Sydney by at least twenty years. Imagine the dilemma if we had spent a great deal of money on the telephone only to see a new technology replace it in the future? Besides, we had a perfectly good telegraph network up until 1968.

Don’t get me started on FM radio, colour television, pay TV or Government 2.0. But if you compare Australia’s use of electronic communications technologies with a similar country like Canada, you can see the trend quite clearly. Australia is slow to implement new technologies. Consumers might take them up pretty quickly, but we are always slow in comparison to the other advanced economies.

Australia simply waits too long before adopting new communications technologies, and then adopts the new technology via a government-led catch-up that is so big we have to wait decades to receive the return on investment from the initial outlay.

It isn’t about a lack of will on the part of the Australian people. Australians want these new technologies but the historical control-freak nature of Australian governments just slows the whole process down. In the meantime, Australians are not learning how to use these new technologies, so we are always behind the 8-ball.

Sure, the NBN will fix a bad situation, but then adding a Net Filter to it is just plain crazy talk.

And then how long will it be before we find ourselves in another communications technology crisis? Will we sit around waiting for the government to “rescue” us once again?

Decentralisation and enabling combinations of business, local council and community solutions to our broadband woes is the key - a key that government refuses to consider.

With a choice between Dumb and Dumber this election, you can rest assured that in a few decades time, we will have a new “future-tech” drama just like the one we have now. Either way, things are not looking good for Australia’s broadband future.

If only Malcolm was still Opposition Leader...

Photo courtesy of Melburnian.

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 Background image © @redshinestudio