Who is the cheapest plumber in town?

Over the last couple of years dozens of excellent papers have been written about the NBN, by universities, research institutions such as the CSIRO, industry associations and healthcare and education organisations, as well as from various government organisations – not to mention the hundreds of articles in the press.

Less than 5% of those participants in the debate would argue that the NBN is a waste of money and that we should go for the cheapest plumber in town to get this infrastructure job done.

Many of these papers have offered good suggestions on where improvements can be made, what is missing in government policies, plus a range of new ideas about what can be done with the NBN; none of them talk about a waste of money, say that it is a white elephant, or suggest we should look for the cheapest plumber in town.

The 5% who are downright dismissive of the NBN are mostly politically motivated and are basing their opinion on the high cost involved; and so they agree that we either should abandon the project or indeed look for the cheapest plumber in town.

The disappointing thing about this last category is that it is widely reported by the press, who are always interested in dirt-digging, mud-slinging and strong language, in the same way that they give the >5% minority group of climate change deniers far more attention than they deserve.

Politicians and their supporters are seriously over-represented within the above two groups of naysayers – particularly those on the more conservative side of politics.

So far we have not come across any NBN sceptics who have dared to move into the area of what the extent of the NBN’s potential – the digital economy, intelligent infrastructure, big data, clouds computing, e-health, e-government, smart grids and so on – let alone address any of the national cost benefit arguments of such an infrastructure. They only look at the plumbing costs.

By ignoring these important social and economic benefits they reveal their ignorance of what the NBN is about. As 95 out of 100 papers written on the subject say, it is about the digital economy, significantly lowering costs in sectors such as healthcare, education, energy, retail etc, while at the same time creating new jobs.

We have entered a period of low or nil economic growth. We need to reduce costs in order to improve the economic situation, make advances in innovation and the quality of our lifestyle; this requires a transformation of the old economy into the digital economy. There are already plenty of examples that clearly show the advantages of the digital economy, as well as examples of what is happening to companies – and indeed sectors – who are failing to embrace it.

The smartphone revolution alone has already resulted in one million new jobs – jobs that did not exist before 2008.

The naysayers simple replay the broken record – that the costs are too high – and ignore the reality that we as a society and an economy have little alternative but to embrace the digital economy. What will the cost be to our economy if we fail to properly develop the essential infrastructure for the digital economy?

By concentrating only on the plumbing costs they ignore the creation of millions of new jobs. What about taking $30 billion out of the costs of healthcare, or $2 billion from energy costs, to name just two examples of what is needed to restart the economy?

Visionary politicians around the world (119 countries) built their NBN policies around those economic and social benefits. Where are the visionaries like these among the conservative politicians in Australia? They are some of the few politicians in the world who deny, or at least ignore, these enormous benefits. We are not aware of one other country where there is no bipartisan support for the broadband infrastructure that is needed for this new environment.

Of course there are political differences on how to get there, but before we start looking for the cheapest plumber in town let us first find out what the plumbing we need is going to be used for. Once we know that then let’s call the plumbers and get them to tell us what sort of infrastructure we need.

Paul Budde

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