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Sunday, 05 September 2010 19:36

On the NBN: Yes, I drank the Kool-Aid


To the many readers who printed out my last column just so they could set it on fire, I confess: In relation to the National Broadband Network, yes, I drank the Kool-Aid.

I drank it willingly and I drank it deep. And no harm done, apparently.

So on this lazy Sunday afternoon, as I await news of the formation of a new government, I am going to kick back and drink some more.

To those unhappy that I accused the seven (largely) wireless CEOs behind the lots-of-wireless NBN 3.0 proposal of being disingenuous - playing the men and not the ball - I apologise.

It was poor form, and I have no reason to believe these wireless leaders are anything but genuine in their desire for wireless networks from the private sector to be the primary customer access technology across the nation.

I should instead have accused this mob of something much worse. Like incrementalism. Like short-termism. Or cynicism.

I've been in love with the idea of a ubiquitous fibre network for some years, so this is not even remotely an ideological issue for me.

In fact, it was The Nationals who gave us permission to dream in 2005 when it released its Page Research paper, which effectively stumped for the National Broadband Network, albeit under a different name.

I am simply sick of seeing band-aid solutions applied to a broken system. I'm sick of lukewarm attempts at capturing the promise of technology, rather than policy that fully embraces it.

And I am sick of seeing good money thrown after bad on policies that don't get to the nub of the problems - the demise of the copper network and the  structural issues that have been disincentives to investing in its replacement.

I am completely unsentimental about Kevin Rudd.

But make no mistake, the National Broadband Network is his big legacy. It was his Big Idea, it was his vision for a Big Australia and for a Smart Australia.

Forget whose idea it was originally, or who has done all the heavy lifting - this was Rudd's because finally we had a prime minister solidly behind such a project.

As of tonight, we still have such a Prime Minister.

In a sea of big programs that sucked all the oxygen out of mainstream newsrooms - from the pink batts fiasco to the Gillard Memorial Halls - the giant among them was the NBN, a project much bigger and more complicated.

Yes, the National Broadband Network is expensive and yes, it carries significant risk.

But that's what nation building projects are like, full of hand-wringing about cost and hand-wringing about benefit.

In the history of the information technology and telecommunications industry has anyone, anywhere, ever argued for less bandwidth or slower processing speeds and been proved right over time? Too much speed? Too fast? Are you kidding?

The wireless proposal from the group I unkindly called the Seven Telco Dwarfs reeks of another band-aid fix that will shortly need an expensive upgrade - to fibre.

I want a ubiquitous fibre network built and I want to see where it takes us. That's a ride I want to be on. And whatever risk is involved, it is one I'm willing to take - along with the wealth creation opportunities and the service delivery outcomes it promises.

I want to see whether it really can improve regional health services by relieving doctor shortages in remote areas.

I want to see whether education outcomes improve for people in regional areas.

In fact, I want to see if it can improve the outcome for a bright kid sitting in Mount Isa who does advanced after-school courses delivered by a university in Wagga Wagga.

I want to see what investment dollars it attracts to Australia from companies developing high-bandwidth products and services - and who want to pilot test in a largely homogeneous English-speaking economy.

I want to see what smart Australian service companies this network spawns - and if we can build a services export industry that reduces reliance on the resources sector.

I want to see this investment drive a bigger interest in the pointy-headed end of the sector; to see more of our best and brightest kids get excited about creative industries like IT, engineering and science; and for them to pursue tertiary and post-graduate opportunities and careers in those areas.

I want to see what impact it has on newsrooms and on our film and post-production houses. On transport and logistics. On mining. On energy. On all of our industries across our whole economy.

A fibre network is basic first world infrastructure. So let's build it. We don't know what services will ultimate ride on the back of the NBN, any more than the architects of electricity networks knew about television or hair straighteners.

An eight-year build timetable is a fragment in time. Let's get into it and get it done, and dispel the ridiculous and cowardly notion that we only take on projects that can be completed in a single electoral cycle.

There is nothing in the methodical, even-paced work of the Minister's office or the department through the regulatory and legislative minefield and in the creation of the NBN Company that suggests government either doesn't understand or isn't capable of building this network.

And certainly there is nothing in the planning or early construction work of the NBN Co that sends up warning flags about its ability to deliver.

In Mike Quigley, the NBN Co has a leader that, on all evidence so far, Australians should feel comfortable about investing their trust.

Let's get on and complete this necessary project because it would be too embarrassing to wake up in a couple of days and realise we were too small-minded as a nation to think this big.


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