Broadband policy lost in side-issues

With the NBN winner due to be announced shortly, broadband policy leadership is stuck in a quagmire of side issues. In a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, improving the availability, speed, quality and price of Australian broadband services has taken a back seat as the policy debate focuses on side issues.

While obviously important in the longer term, issues of cyber-security, Internet filtering, copyright and so on are far from being solved. Indeed, every developed nation is still coming to grips with these issues as the digital economy evolves.

In the meantime, Australia's broadband network is stalled. Businesses are waiting to see what will happen at a time when the GFC requires businesses to innovate and increase growth. The role of government in broadband deployment and demand-side development at all levels is unclear. The Australian communications industry is bounded by out-dated industry structures which restrict the deployment of infrastructure.

Federal systems present unique challenges for coordinating the deployment of communications infrastructure. Australia's federal system has evolved from a government-owned monopoly to a market-based system which is still dominated by Telstra. But there is a role for the states and local governments which is rarely heard in the public debate. This is most noticeable in cases such as TransACT: where access to the 'duct structure' (particularly overhead power lines) was available, Canberra residents have had access to high-speed cable broadband since the early 2000s. Suburbs such as Gungahlin, with underground 'duct structure', have struggled with mostly ADSL services. The differences in the available consumer choices for broadband services between Ainslie and Gungahlin, for example, are significant.

A 2008 report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) entitled Explaining Broadband Leadership makes particular note of policy leadership and the role of the different levels of government in the US:
State and local governments should take action to make it easier for providers to deploy broadband services, including making it easier to access rights-of-way.
In Australia, the historical legacies of centrally-controlled communications networks make it difficult for local solutions to address peculiar communications issues at the local level. Local planning laws need to enable open access to the duct structure, for example, but with federal responsibility for communications networks so entrenched, there is little room for innovation at the local level.

The ITIF (2008) report also suggests that pragmatism is more important than arguments over whether government or business should deploy broadband infrastructure. With a centrally-controlled system, there is little room for a diverse approach to delivering broadband services.

Given that the policy debate has moved away from providing Australians with faster, cheaper access to quality broadband services, and is now caught up in side-issues, the practical problems of broadband deployment are simply being ignored. It is difficult to see how any improvement in the current situation can occur without policy leadership from the federal government. Decentralisation may be the key.

Finally, the structure of the Australian communication market needs to be changed to meet the challenges of technological convergence. If this does not happen soon, Australia will end up with further legacies which will impact upon the digital economy for years to come.