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EDITORIAL- 14/4/2011: FOUR CORNERS CROSS EYED ON NBN

By Andrew L. Urban

Inside the NBN Co, Four Corners, ABC TV, Monday April 11 was a lamentable missed opportunity, especially airing just days after headlines about failures of construction tendering and resignations at NBN Co. In 48 minutes of valuable airtime, Four Corners managed to take a cross eyed view, simply regurgitating the garbled debate that continues to rage about the bad policy judgements that established the NBN.

Just as proponents of the NBN policy fail to address the core criticism of it (methodology) and constantly argue that “fast, ubiquitous and affordable broadband is nation building” as justification for this Government policy, Four Corners mixed up its mind – and the viewers’ – with intercutting economic issues with technical issues and the motherhood-like desirability of fast broadband for sick people, schools and farmers in regional Australia.

Instead of a coherent discussion between a few well informed participants about how best to achieve what are the aims of the NBN, Four Corners let itself be dragged into justifying the NBN on the basis of selective outcomes as a service – a service which has more or less universal support in one form or another. 

"functional, economically and politically responsible alternatives"

Not for one minute of its 48 did Four Corners explore what functional, economically and politically responsible alternatives there might be to a national monopoly. Ah yes, that’s what the Productivity Commission would have done, had it been allowed to.

Some of these questions might have been: Could the goal of delivering high speed broadband to regional areas be achieved by any means other than a blanket, high cost national monopoly? 

What smartly devised Government incentives to private enterprise would achieve the desired outcomes at lower cost to the taxpayers? 

Could Government delivery of broadband services target areas which are unprofitable – perhaps in conjunction with private sector operators? 

What would be the best way to use Telstra’s existing network?

"Government-owned monopolies are doubly inefficient"

Monopolies are inherently inefficient. Government-owned monopolies are doubly inefficient. And Government owned monopolies shielded from Freedom of Information laws are perhaps infinitely inefficient. 

Given the recent failures and massive wastage of major Government programs, there is little confidence in the NBN being effectively delivered. But then it should never have been created.

Amendments were proposed by Malcolm Turnbull during the Parliamentary debates a few weeks ago on various aspects of the NBN which would allow some scrutiny of the NBN under the FOI laws, but these were defeated – by one vote. Thank the Independents.

If there is anything that has been learnt about the NBN in that process it’s that the Government is determined to keep the NBN operations a secret from us all. Is this likely to build confidence in it? Is it likely to encourage efficiency? 

Whenever the Government faces questions about the NBN it repeats the mantra: we all need fast national broadband and anyone opposing the NBN is a luddite, backward and out of touch, anti-progress, a denier of rights for the bush, a killer of medical outreach, etc. It has never asked itself (thanks to Minister Stephen Conroy) the right questions.

The hysterical tone comes from its shallowness. The primary dispute about the NBN is NOT about a system of national broadband connections, other than at the margins of demand driven or blanket access. The argument was always and still is about how best – most efficiently for the taxpayer, most flexibly for the future – to deliver it. 

"As an online publisher of both text and video content"

As an online publisher of both text and video content, we have considerable interest in public policy on broadband and have for years advocated a significant improvement in Australia’s broadband service capabilities. But we never advocated that Government set up the NBN Co to do it.

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Andrew L. Urban

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