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Thursday, 02 September 2010 22:25

Seven Telco Dwarfs seek wireless distopia


I feel blessed to live in a society where even the most disingenuous are allowed to have their say, unmolested by thoughts of the common good.

But as fascinating as it has been to hear the discredited views of a group of self-interested telco chief executives, you really have to wonder why they've only found their voice now.

In fact, given that this so-called group of seven - the now famed Alliance for Affordable Broadband - has presented itself as the voice of reason, how is it that they have kept such reasonable and informed views to themselves?

You would have thought this group would have been campaigning against the NBN Co's fibre plans long ago.

The National Broadband Network has been Rudd-Gillard policy for three years. The NBN Co was formed a year and a half ago. The network has been openly under construction.

Where were these brave wireless frontiersmen then?

And where were they when the Coalition announced its Magic Pudding of a broadband policy, less than two weeks out from the election? They didn't exactly jump on board with that Liberal Party blancmange of technologies when it landed with a splat at a Parliament House press conference. Why not?

Because it was a mess, that's why. And it didn't start to look even remotely appealing until a hung Parliament became a possibility. And then same tired arguments for a wireless utopia could be trotted out for the sake of three rural independents.

Like the Coalition's quick-fix election stitch, the Alliance for Affordable Broadband - Allegro Networks, PIPE Networks, BigAir, Vocus Communications, AAPT, Polyfone and EFTEL - is all about cost. They advocate a system that can be built fast and cheap.

To be fair to Labor, no-one ever argued its National Broadband Network was going to be cheap - although it will cost taxpayers far less than the $43 billion price tag that is most commonly attached to it (Let's call it $26 billion before any savings from the Telstra deal are factored in.)

And Labor never argued that it was going to be a quick-fix. In fact, the project was always portrayed in "nation-building" terms - both because the project was a massive financial and engineering under-taking, and because it would provide an infrastructure for national growth for decades.

The policy has been openly debated for years. Its technical specifications have been developed in open forums.

And assuming the three rural independents have been listening over the past couple of years - and by all indications they have - Labor has always argued that the biggest beneficiaries of its NBN policy would be regional Australians.

The Coalition knew too well its communications policy was on the nose. It's why they kept it under wraps from the Australian people until just two weeks before a vote. It's why their leader didn't turn up to its launch (seriously, tell me another $6 billion-plus policy announcement that any leader wouldn't want a piece of? It doesn't exist.)

The policy is a mess because it does nothing to address structural problems within the telecommunications sector that have ham-strung competition for decades. It doesn't matter what kind of money the Coalition wants to slosh around the sector, it will all just be tinkering if these structural problems aren't addressed.

The structural separation of Telstra and the creation of an open access, wholesale only network, would go some way to creating a competitive telecommunications environment in this country.

The Alliance for Affordable Broadband says nothing about regulatory reform. It says "infrastructure competition" is the way forward for the industry.

Which is just terrific stuff, except that the last Coalition Government we had in this country tried for 11 years to encourage infrastructure competition, only to produce one miserably ineffective farce after another - all just tinkering, and all allowing the incumbent, Telstra, to maintain an unhealthy and constrictive dominance.

The regulatory issues are not a small issue. They are absolutely fundamental to any discussion about improving services in this country.

And a vast, vast amount of money will be sunk for nought return if regulatory issues are not addressed as part of, or prior to, any large-scale public telecommunications investment plans.

As for the Bravehearts of the Alliance for Affordable Broadband, maybe they should consider joining the debate on a key election issue prior to polls opening - rather than after it has closed.

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