Australia's broadband policy is a flimsy, cynical House of Cards
Prime Minister Turnbull is strangling our economy
On a recent trip to the shops, I priced a massive UHD OLED telly, with blacks so dark the panel looked like it actively sucked in light. Staring into the most beautiful television I’d ever seen, I had a moment of clarity: Gorgeous and expensive, but useless.
A generation ago, one of my mentors taught me a simple truth, “Reality bites you on the arse when ignored long enough." You can’t fool yourself forever, and the longer you go, the harsher the reckoning.
Welcome to Australia in 2016, where the consequences of our choices have begun to poison the even littlest pleasures. That UHD television? Spectacularly pointless because no network will ever broadcast 4K content, and even more so because almost no one can stream 4K content. Nearly all the broadband available to consumers in their homes - where they might watch a nice 4K episode of House of Cards via Netflix - can’t support a 4K stream.
Last year when I said as much in this column, the then-Communications Minister took time out of a public address to refute my maths, claiming Australians would absolutely be able to enjoy the benefits of 4K video, even multiple streams. People seemed to believe him - after all, he’s the minister, and he should know what he’s talking about, right?
This is the first mistake, the one from which all others flow.
The Government of the day created the National Broadband Network to deal with the market failures in Australian broadband: a lack of competitiveness, comfortable profits, and zero thought for the future. Without a broad consensus of support across the political landscape, NBN immediately became the political whipping boy of the Opposition. As a result, the nation’s broadband needs have, for most of the last decade, been held hostage to faction and whim and political favours.
The world doesn’t stop while a nation’s leaders engage in tribal warfare. It spins on - and spins up an increasingly provocative and promising set of very high bandwidth applications.
Last week, when I watched Microsoft’s eye-popping ‘holoportation’ demo, I knew the bandwidth requirements to make that Star Wars experience lay far beyond anything anticipated by any government, or NBNco. Meet the future, its teeth firmly planted in our stupid, lazy, tribal rear ends.
On a live television broadcast back in 2011, I confronted the Opposition Communications Minister - at that time recovering from a devastating loss of the leadership - and firmly told him that the future will have high bandwidth applications we can’t even imagine today. That’s the way it’s always worked. You build it, then they come.
He laughed, and openly ridiculed me. “We know the truth about you," he claimed, “You’ve drunk the kool aid." My quarter century in data communications meant nothing next to his commanding insight that Australians would never need more than 12 Mbps into the home, a statement obsolete almost from the moment he uttered it.
Those tribal wars raged on, and now that once-Opposition Communications Minister sits in the PM’s chair. It’s only because of the intense scrutiny that comes with that job Australia has learned he’s actually a shambolic leader, making a muddle of even the simplest tasks, unable to command his own party or articulate a vision for the nation that isn’t a logorrhea of buzzwords.
If all of this stayed neatly within the Canberra bubble, we could ignore it and move on. But, as I’ve said before, our lack of pervasively available high bandwidth produces a slow strangulation. Only it’s not so slow any more. How can Harvey Norman spruik its beautiful five thousand dollar telly when there’s no promise that at some point in the future, it becomes wholly useful?
Take that single decision point and multiply it across the number of touchpoints where the Australian economy requires high-speed broadband, and you can now see what’s becoming plain to all except the Prime Minister - the failure of the NBN project has a material impact on the Australian economy. It’s not hypothetical, nor does it lie at some point in a distant, starry-eyed future. It’s real and it’s here now.
For years our Prime Minister spruiked mobile broadband as the solution - and Australian’s incredibly fast and pervasive 4G network might be the only positive outcome of the failure of the NBN. Our investment in mobile networks has given Australia one of the very best such networks in the world.
Yet - as could be seen when Telstra recently offered a ‘free day’ of mobile data in penance for another outage - these mobile networks can’t come close to handling the demand for broadband. Australians are also voting with their feet: it turns out that even with 4G pervasive, 98 per cent of downloads are done over the wire. Turns out that was another thoughtless thought bubble from a leader who seems to believe that because he says it, it must be true.
We’ve reached a dead end, with only two choices before us: plow into the brick wall of reality at full speed, or hit the brakes, and turn ourselves around, reorienting our policies toward the world as it is. One way or another, this house of cards is coming tumbling down.
Meanwhile, I’ve got a new nickname for the PM, one that fully describes his continuing impact on Australia’s economy. From here on in, I’ll refer to him as The Strangler. ®