NBN – telecoms or digital infrastructure – a SAU question

BuddeComm sees one of the major problems of the NBN to be that, on the one hand, it is promoted as national infrastructure, a national utility, essential for e-health, etc, but on the other the associated legislation and regulations are based on it being just another telecoms network.

This creates all sorts of issues, particularly in relation to the financial basis of the project. Is its infrastructure there for the national good, with economic and social benefits derived from it which far outweigh any financial gains? Or is it a telecoms network that needs to make money from traditional telecoms services?

We have discussed this issue in some detail on several occasions during the last couple of years – for instance, in the article: Is the NBN Co business model flawed?

These questions are now coming up again, in the discussion regarding the Special Access Undertaking (SAU) which NBN Co has to file with the ACCC. As would be expected, NBN Co developed these SAUs based on its requirements as a telecommunications operator, but is this really in the national interest? Are prices and conditions for its telco wholesalers all that matters, as per the good old telecommunications regulations of the past? Or should we be looking at other elements to measure the performance of the NBN and its operator, NBN Co, in the market?

These SAUs are being presented as if no progress has been made since the old regime, with its decades-old battles regarding access prices and other conditions. Isn’t the NBN all about innovation, digital productivity, supporting e-health, and in general creating social and economic benefits for the nation?

Where are the KPIs of these activities covered in the SAUs, or for that matter in any other undertaking or document? How will NBN co deliver on this? How will they be measured?

The NBN has the potential to transform the entire industry – and indeed significant elements of the economy – but it appears that none of this is recognised or measured in any way by the ACCC or the government.

While one could argue that NBN Co should come up with its ideas and suggestions, they may – perhaps correctly – hide behind the fact that this is not in their charter and that the government has not put any requirements along these lines in their charter.

The ACCC could take a similar position and turn a blind eye by saying this is not our problem – it is an issue for the government to solve.

I have advised both the Government and the Opposition that we believe this to be a key issue that will need to be discussed, with a proper resolution after the elections. This was not received with a great deal of enthusiasm by either side. For obvious reasons the government does not want to discuss any upcoming changes and to date the Opposition hasn’t even recognised the importance of the NBN for the delivery of social and economic benefits.

This could be part of a review as NBN Co’s CEO Michael Quigley has proposed; or the Opposition could put it on its agenda for review. My concern is that most people prefer to talk about the plumbing and the pros and cons of one technology over another and the various costing involved in it all. We are lacking visionary politicians who will dare to take the more difficult, complex, but very strategic act approach of asking why we are building the NBN and, based on the answer to this, put the right policies in place to underpin those goals, which in my view should include the national social and economic benefits derived from the NBN’s digital productivity opportunities.

Paul Budde

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