Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What now for Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN)?

The inconclusive outcome of Australia's general election means the National Broadband Network has shifted from election issue to bargaining chip, as party leaders negotiate to attempt to form a government.

Inside Story highlights the very different approaches to broadband taken by the two main parties in the run up to the election, with the coalition attacking what they saw as the ruling Labour government's "profligacy, preference for government control and failure to deliver on promises" epitomised by their NBN policy. Given the inconclusive result the independents and Greens (in the from of Adam Bandtnow hold the key:
"The Greens have broadly supported Labor’s broadband policy although they have criticised some of the detail and the process for determining it... For the three country independents in the House of Reps, telecommunications is not merely important, it is one of the touchstone issues that explain why they are independents rather than members of the National Party. Living a long way from major cities, Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott all tell stories in parliament about how much communications means to them and their constituents."
Australia's ITnews confirms their importance, suggesting that "a hung parliament could favour the prioritised rollout of broadband services in regional and rural Australia." Arguments for and against the NBN continued in the run up to the election: an article in The Australian set out seven reasons why the NBN will fail, another offered an analysis of the key differences between the two parties' policies while this article highlights the key issue underpinning the debate - cost:
"Opposition Leader Tony Abbott faces a harder sell with his threadbare broadband policy which although cheaper than Labor's plan, lacks the technological superiority of the NBN."
Further analysis from Reuters, Fox Business and an excellent blog post (NBN – Where to from here?) by Sean Kaye, a senior Australian IT executive, which quotes Julia Gillard's reaction to the election result ("a glitch in the Matrix", in his opinion): "The people have spoken, but its going to take a little while to determine what they said.” Kaye doesn't dispute the importance of broadband to Australia and is of the view that a sensible common ground is achievable if  parties are prepared to compromise.

So, the decision seems to hinge on whether Australia wants the best, most future-proof network it can build,  a scaled back, less expensive network that will still (just about) keep pace with current and future demand, or something in between?

This seems a best value versus lowest cost argument to me, and given how widely the economic benefits of broadband have been reported, I know where my inclinations lie.

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