Australia’s first Hi-Tech Prime Minister

Just before he became Prime Minister I had a telephone discussion with the then Minister for Communication, Malcolm Turnbull, regarding an article I wrote in which I expressed my disappointment about various issues around the NBN. He invited me for a deeper discussion on this, I think the time might be ripe to review the NBN and start adding the FttH extension to it

I was very critical of the minister in my article but at the same time I am well aware of his knowledge on ICT-related issues, and in most of my blogs where I have talked about this I expressed my high regard for his technical understanding. That was why I expressed my surprise and frustration at his lack of support for a proper NBN and the absence of a visionary drive from him on how we should get there. The MTM is simply not good enough in the long term.

With Malcolm now in the top job, he will have far greater freedom to express his views on these issues – views that will most certainly be far more liberal than conservative, which the industry would welcome.

My key issue has been that I am still unclear about the government’s vision on the NBN. Without a vision it is difficult to judge the strategies that need to be developed.

My vision is that the NBN is essential economic and social infrastructure for the future of Australia. It was good to see that the NBN company recently released a report that showed the enormous job growth that the NBN can facilitate, confirming that the NBN is important for the economic prosperity of our nation.

This should be fantastic news for a government that is so focused on job creation.

Over the last decade there have been many other reports from nearly every academic organisation in our country, all pointing to those social and economic benefits. As a matter of fact this should be the key reason for spending taxpayers’ money on the NBN – if it were purely for entertainment there would be no reason for a government to become involved.

If the key purpose of the NBN is indeed to generate economic benefits for the country then I believe that should guide the design of the NBN. The desired outcomes the government would like to see could then be articulated to the engineers and they would no doubt come back with the best possible technical solution. If, for political reasons, such a solution would be too costly then obviously the plan needs to be adjusted, but without damaging the vision and the future economic prospects.

However, as the Prime Minister is aware, this cost issue has so far not been seen as critical by the people of Australia, so it is somewhat surprising that it was the key reason indicated by the government for downgrading the NBN.

Obviously the fact that a range of different figures put out by the government on the development of FttH has resulted in many questioning the wisdom of going in the direction of the MTM. Apart from the fact that the costs are now starting to look similar, the MTM still needs to be further developed into a proper FttH network and the extra costs involved in upgrading the MTM to FttH will no doubt make the total rollout of the current solution even more expensive.

Companies such as Verizon, Google and Reggefiber are now rolling out FttH at costs well below what the NBN company is quoting. The cost of rolling out FttH is set to further decrease while the cost of upgrading old technology, as well as that of maintaining it, will only increase.

However the people of Australia are judging other elements in relation to the NBN as being far more important than cost; they simply ask for a first-class rather than a second-class network.

In my opinion key requirements for such a network are: capacity, reliability, low latency, affordability in relation to the services that it will carry (eg, e-health, e-education, smart grids, smart cities, and so on), security, ubiquity and privacy.

The current discussion in relation to speed is, I believe, the wrong one.  The discussion of network speeds is still far too dominated by video-streaming services. That has been, and continues to be, very misleading. If we want to talk speeds the following is important: downstream speeds = entertainment / upstream speeds = economic development.

It will be very interesting to see what happens now that Malcolm has been unshackled from the more conservative level of politics dictated by Tony Abbott.

Under that previous regime, I fully understood the political situation he was in, and I have also mentioned in previous blogs that I was grateful to him for saving the NBN from the ‘kill at all cost’ campaign of his predecessor.  However I hope that he will now express a vision for the NBN, importantly with those economic and social benefits in mind. And while I am happy to leave the technical outcome of such a vision in the hands of the expert engineers I would be greatly surprised if they did not come up with an FttH solution. I would be surprised if the view of our engineers turns out to be totally different from those in other countries

These were some of the issues that I had put on my list of discussion points with Malcolm. Let’s just wait and see if Australia’s first hi-tech Prime Minister can do better on all of them, now that he is fully in charge of the politics that have been surrounding them for too long.

Paul Budde

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