Saturday, July 23, 2011

Australian Opposition Broadband Policy

Malcolm Turnbull, Shadow Minister for Communications, outlined the coalition policy on broadband at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) 20 July 2011. Unfortunately Mr. Turnbull has not provided a copy of the speech, nor has CEDA. From media reports, it would appear the coalition policy differs only in detail and timing from the ALP Government policy.

The Government is decommissioning the copper network and replacing it with fiber to the home, terrestrial fixed wireless and satellite (for more remote areas). Revenue from urban areas would cross-subsidize rural users, to provide national uniform pricing.

The coalition alternative is to install fiber in new greenfield urban areas and where the copper has deteriorated. Where copper cable is in good condition it would be used for fiber-to-the-node. The existing hybrid fiber/coaxial network installed for Pay TV would be retained. Vouchers would be provided to subsidize rural subscribers.

The difference between the two policies is mostly one of timing. The ALP policy will see a much more rapid replacement of copper with fiber.

The Coalition also proposes a Productivity Commission inquiry into how to deliver broadband. Such an inquiry is likely to come up with whatever answer the government of the day wants. The results of the inquiry can be predetermined by the brief the commission is given. If given a brief with a short timescale, emphasizing cost to the government, then the Coalition policy will look better. If told to look at the long term social and economic benefits, then the ALP policy will be better.

The common factors between the Coalition and ALP policies are the recognition that fiber is the better long term option and that regional areas will need a subsidy for social equity reasons.

The deficiencies in both the government and opposition policies are the lack of recognition of the growth of mobile wireless devices and the need to invest to get the community, business and government "broadband ready".

Mobile Broadband as the Predominant Internet Access Method

The coalition and ALP policies both assume that fixed broadband to homes is the primary service required. This fails to recognize the rapid increase in the use of wireless broadband with mobile devices, such as smart phones, tablet computers, popularized by the Apple iPhone and Apple iPad. There are now broadband plans for less than $10 a month being offered which include the tablet computer.

Low cost laptops with wireless are also becoming common. The influence of the mobile paradigm is now spreading to the desktop, with the new Microsoft Windows, Apple OS and Linux user interfaces for desktop computers being modeled on a mobile interface. Mobile is becoming the predominant paradigm, with fixed devices being required to fit in with this.

For a consumer who primarily uses the Internet via their mobile device, it will not make much sense to be tethered to a home fixed line connection. There may be savings in cost from using the fixed link and higher more reliable capacity, but these will hardly be compelling. Rather than wireless being an add-on for a fixed connection, as at present, the fixed link will need to adapt to be an add-on to mobile access.

Making the Community, Business and Government Broadband Ready

Both coalition and ALP broadband policies take a "build it and they will come" approach, in assuming that the available broadband will be used and will result in social and economic benefits. However, seemingly inevitable developments, such as the paperless office and TV based education, did not happen as expected.

While the cost of the NBN is criticized by the opposition, its cost will be dwarfed by the cost of the Australian economy adapting to its use. Use of on-line working will require the retraining of the workforce and the introduction of new systems.

There are also be negative social and economic effects of broadband, which need to be taken into account. Readily available on-line services will result in the reduction of face-to-face services. Access to services via broadband will open the Australian service industry to overseas competition.

Broadband can be used to provide e-health and e-learning to regional areas of Australia. However, not only will this allow provision of services where there are no face-to-face services currently, but also it will allow government and commercial providers to withdraw face-to-face services in urban areas. Just as ATMs resulted in fewer bank branches, broadband will result in fewer clinics and schools.

The policies also assume that services over broadband to regional Australia will be provided from other parts of Australia. However, once the fiber is laid, the extra cost of access from another country is minimal.

One way to maximize the positive social and economic benefits of broadband is to invest in training and systems to make use of it.

Broadband Use Does Not Happen Naturally

One of the assumptions of the coalition and ALP broadband policies is that its take-up will happen naturally. However, my experience with working on e-learning over the last few years has shown this is not the case. Even ICT professionals, who are highly skilled at using computers and the Internet need to be trained in how to use it for education. ICT professionals undertaking on-line courses need to be shown how to use it for their education and , in particular, how to have a productive and professional on-line discussion with their peers.

Teachers, even university lecturers in ICT, need extensive training in how to use ICT for education. Educators need to learn new skills. It is not just a matter of replacing the classroom with a video conferecne. The teaching staff also need extensive support with the software and systems used. The situation is likely to be the same with e-heath and with other service providers.

The Austrlaian Government has made a start with its Digital Education Revolution (DER) strategy. But far more than the allocated $2.4B will be required to support integration of information and communication technology (ICT) in Australian schools. More funding will also be needed for the vocational and higher education sectors.

Australia needs to invest heavily in training the workforce in the use of broadband. If not, other countries, particularly Indian companies who then outsource to less developed countries, will be providing the bulk of these services within a few years.

More in my submission to the Inquiry into the role and potential of the National Broadband Network: "Broadband for a Broad Land: The role and potential benefits of the National Broadband Network the for Environment and Education".

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