Lost within the turmoil of the $42 billion federal government spend-a-thon and the so called “national economic crisis” has been the issue of the infamous “National Broadband Network”. After ridiculing the Howard government for taking too long to initiate work on this network, all Senator Conroy has managed to do is set things back a few years and we are still effectively nowhere near seeing work start on on this important national infrastructure project.
The national broadband network project makes Australia in technology terms, look like some quaint small country were people still gaze into the sky in wonder when they see an aircraft.
In my home office in Japan I have a lovely 100 Mbps fibre connection with two IP’s phones connected and no download limit, whereas back in Australia the government has committed “to provide up to $4.7 billion and to consider necessary regulatory changes to facilitate the roll-out of a new open access, high-speed, fibre-based broadband network, providing downlink speeds of at least 12 megabits per second to 98 per cent of Australian homes and businesses.”
Wow..we are so into the future in Australia…12 Mbps!
Back in mid 2007 the former Howard government actually set things in motion and a consortium called OPEL Networks (Optus and Elders) secured (well sort of) $958 million in government funding to roll out a broadband network to regional and rural Australia. Rudd and Co. while in opposition were critical about what they perceived as being slow progress in this area, and yet when they took office in late 2007 they cancelled the funding for OPEL and set everything back at least 2 years. Well done team Rudd.
According to the Optus June 2007 Press Release (the full press release can be found here) the proposed OPEL Network was aimed to (amongst other things):
- Deliver wireless broadband speeds up to 6 Mbps rising to 12 Mbps by 2009 and up to 20 Mbps on ADSL2+.
- Use a total of 1361 Broadband Wireless sites comprising: 438 in New South Wales; 339 in Queensland; 117 in South Australia; 45 in Tasmania; 296 in Victoria; 113 in Western Australia; 10 in the Northern Territory; and 3 in the Australian Capital Territory.
- Target a principal market of 3.7 million rural and regional premises. An additional 5.3 million premises could be served on the fringes of OPEL’s broadband wireless network where there is already significant competitive broadband infrastructure.
So if the Senator Conroy had simply left things alone better progress would have been made. Even allowing for the usual project delays we now would have been at the stage where regional and rural Australia would be gaining access to a broadband network, and more importantly this work would be employing people at a time when Australian is trying to avoid recession.
But has the media jumped on the fact that Rudd talks about “shovel ready” projects when his Minister (Conroy) and himself actually cancelled a major national project as soon as they came to office? How many new jobs were not created because of that decision? (Is anyone awake in the Opposition I wonder?)
As for broadband in the major cities and urban areas, we just need the Government to get out of the way and let the telecommunications companies sort that out. There is money to be made in rolling out broadband in these areas and the telco’s will go chasing that. After all we did not need any grand government plans to get PayTV or 3G rolled out did we?
There are two major obstacles in getting a true broadband network rolled out across Australia. One is the Minister: Senator Stephen “never held a private sector job in my life” Conroy, and the other is the bizarrely named Ministry he heads up – the “Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy”.
What exactly that Ministry is suppose to do or manage is beyond me and even after visiting their website I am none the wiser. I suspect it has been set up along the lines of the Ministry of Silly Walks and that we can expect the national broadband network to get the full “Silly Walks” treatment, as indeed it already has. If readers are not familiar with the Ministry of Silly Walks then please see the clip below. (Just replace John Cleese with Stephen Conroy and you will get the idea)
What should really scare people about this debacle is that is shows that the Rudd Government is unable to manage a national project even when it is “shovel ready”. According to various media reports $11 million has been either spent or set aside for consultants to help advise the government regarding the national broadband network.
Apparently $4 million has already been spent on consultants and all we have seen so far is the OPEL plan scuttled and the network put out the tender again. If this sort of overhead was applied to Rudd’s $42 billion economic stimulus package then we can kiss goodbye to around $100 million for starters even before the state governments start to spend their share on another layer of consultants. Great work Stephen, I can see why you stuck with jobs where business skills were not needed.
However in the midst of all this broadband chaos there are a few things we can be sure of. Firstly that there will be no national broadband network in place within this decade and secondly, what ever solution is finally decided on it will simply put Australian broadband back to where other developed countries were years ago.
The best outcome for taxpayers at this stage therefore would be for the government to go back to OPEL (say sorry) and green-light the rural broadband network, and then just get out of the way and let Telstra, Optus, AAPT etc. rollout a solution for the city areas as market forces demand.