Monday, October 5, 2020

The short answer #2: Broken broadband unbalances the books

Back in 2013, when the first of the latest string of Coalition Governments we have had was elected, there seemed to be a strong view within the Coalition that broadband was a luxury, mainly useful for entertainment. Yet those of us familiar with the work of Australian post-production companies, doing the finishing work on major US films during the day while the US industry slept, and sending it by broadband overnight for work to resume in the Northern hemisphere the next day, knew it was a key part of Australia’s productive infrastructure. Then the COVID-19 pandemic confirmed it. Now the Government has acknowledged that there are major deficiencies with the National Broadband Network but is it too late to save it and make it the national asset we need and deserve?

I don’t normally write about technical issues. However high quality broadband is so crucial to the future of the creative sector that commenting about it is unavoidable. After spending ten years belittling the Labor Government plan for almost universal high speed broadband, the Coalition Government has finally accepted that what it has produced is a second-rate mess.

 

Distinctive National Broadband Boxes have sprung up across the nation - but the news is not as welcoming as the message on this one.

Now, seven years after the Coalition Government was first elected, it is pushing ahead with plans to spend $4.5 billion to fix up the compromise its own cuts have created. The Minister now responsible, Paul Fletcher, used to work for Optus, so on top of the advice from his department, he must have a pretty good historical idea of the problems. It’s a good sign that he has finally made this announcement, despite the limitations of Government commitment. There’s also the question of who would want to go into the next election with this disappointing issue on your hands?

Key part of our productive infrastructure

In 2013, the Coalition Government tore up Labor’s 2008 plan for a network of 93 per cent FTTP (Fibre to the Premises) by 2021 at an estimated cost of $43 billion in favour of a second-rate mix of different types of connections of varying quality. The decision to use copper-based FTTN (Fibre to the Node) connections across much of the network was particularly controversial, with telco experts warning that technology was no longer fit for purpose in 2020. Many of these connections are so poor that telcos, including Telstra, have stopped offering high-speed NBN plans to FTTN customers.

‘What we have lost out of all of this is seven years of much higher productivity, something that could have helped transform Australia and its economy, which had already been struggling with poor productivity long before the pandemic. Now we will be jogging to catch up, with the extra load from the pandemic fallout to add to the burden.’

At the time there seemed to be a strong view within the Coalition that broadband was a luxury, mainly useful for entertainment. Yet those of us familiar with the work of Australian post-production companies, doing the finishing work on major US films during the day while the US industry slept, and sending it by broadband overnight for work to resume in the Northern hemisphere the next day, knew it was a key part of Australia’s productive infrastructure. The use of broadband during the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that high quality broadband is a central part of our essential infrastructure, like electricity and water and food distribution networks.

Jogging to catch up

Unfortunately, late as it is, this turnaround is not nearly as good as it looks. It seems that NBN Co’s own plans show that only 400,000 connections are expected to be upgraded by 2025. On top of this, it looks like those seeking access to this higher quality network will be required to sign up to NBN plans that are unaffordable for many households. Perhaps we could say ‘better late than never’, but much more welcome would be ‘better better – and sooner’. What we have lost out of all of this is seven years of much higher productivity, something that could have helped transform Australia and its economy, which had already been struggling with poor productivity long before the pandemic. Now we will be jogging to catch up, with the extra load from the pandemic fallout to add to the burden.

I suppose it’s hard to expect much from any kind of telecommunications policy when we’re spending increasing amounts of time at home hanging on the telephone answering scam calls. If anything sums up our current politically bankrupt times, it is the way our politicians of all shades have seemingly happily abandoned our phone lines to scammers. There has always been a reluctance to keep cheap local calls, with telcos pushing for years to move to more expensive timed calls. Maybe they no longer need to worry. If you have a landline, something becoming increasingly rare, ninety per cent of calls are outright scams. I don’t know what this means for vulnerable elderly people, who are most likely to have a landline. Maybe our politicians think scamming phone calls are part of the new normal, summed up by a possible revised saying for our times, ‘It’s broke, don’t fix it’.

See also

The old normal was abnormal – survival lessons for a new riskier world 

‘When I hear the call to get back to normal, I think ‘what was normal about the old normal?’ The sudden shutdown of large sectors of the economy highlighted drastically how precarious was the situation of vast chunks of Australian society, in particular but not exclusively, the creative sector. The business models implemented by the Government to help businesses survive and employees keep their jobs didn’t work at all for those who had already been happily left at – or even deliberately pushed to – the margins of society and the economy. In good times the creative sector is flexible and fast at responding. In bad times it is a disaster, as the failure of the COVID-19 support packages for the sector shows’, The old normal was abnormal – survival lessons for a new riskier world.

Shutting down Australian creativity and culture – timeline of a trainwreck

‘In its response to the pandemic the current Government came a long way in terms of its narrow economic views about minimising the role of Government. However the longer history of neglect of the creative sector shows how severe the Government's economic limitations are and how its grasp of the economy (without even mentioning the social sphere) is too narrow and out of date. It has missed a whole sector of the economy that was large, fast growing and included many of the jobs of the future. It's most recent actions have merely compounded a seven year history of neglect and damage,’ Shutting down Australian creativity and culture – timeline of a trainwreck.
  
Caught in the past – economic blindness overlooks the creative sector

‘The last few months have been a wild ride. First the national bushfires and now global pandemic. In February people were being encouraged to visit fire-ravaged regional centres to help boost local economies. By March they were being urged to stay home to help reduce the spread of pestilence. I’m quietly seething at governments which knew this was coming, but just didn’t have a fixed date, and thought they could make savings by pretending it wasn’t coming. Now the Australian creative sector has largely been infected as well, but without the ventilators required to keep it alive,’ Caught in the past – economic blindness overlooks the creative sector.

Music makes the world go round – the bright promise of our export future 

‘After ABBA, in an unexpected break from its traditional way of building national wealth from natural resources, Sweden managed to discover a new source of income. It was not as you would expect coal or oil. Rather than oil what it had discovered was song royalties, part of a fundamental change in the nature of modern economies which transformed them from relying solely on natural resources, transport and manufacturing to make creative content a new form of resource mining. Examples like theirs point to potentially major opportunities for the Australian music industry to become a net exporter of music,’ Music makes the world go round – the bright promise of our export future

Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities

‘It is becoming abundantly clear that in our contemporary world two critical things will help shape the way we make a living – and our economy overall. The first is the central role of cities in generating wealth. The second is the knowledge economy of the future and, more particularly, the creative industries that sit at its heart. In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, both of these come together in a scattering of evolving creative clusters – concentrations of creative individuals and small businesses, clumped together in geographic proximity. This development is part of a national and world-wide trend which has profound implications’, Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities.

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival  

‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

 

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