Technophobe Tony's broadband back-step


When the benefits of the internet became apparent more than a decade ago, some conscientious consumers were reluctant to get connected. They feared it would divide the nation between those who could afford to own a computer and those who could not. Fortunately computer and internet connection prices tumbled and most Australians have some form of access.

Now the 'digital divide' is determined by speed of access. Any internet connection will allow us to send and receive email, browse the web, and do a certain amount of social networking. But a fast broadband connection allows us to do much more than simply browse the web at a fast pace, or watch high definition movies. It has health and education benefits that can save lives and give us access to world class education resources. It offers vast improvements in business productivity. In all, it adds up to a quantum leap in personal and economic wellbeing.

These days, references to the digital divide in Australia usually refer to geography. Those in rural locations are the ones who are disadvantaged, and they will remain so until there is large-scale investment in infrastructure such as Labor's National Broadband Network (NBN). A network such as the NBN depends upon public funding because it does not make sense for business, which needs to turn a profit. The geography of Australia is such that the building of roads or any communications infrastructure depends upon public expenditure that will never be recouped. It is about nation building, rather than profit and loss, and that is the task of governments.

Broadband policy is the only major point of difference between Labor and the Coalition in the lead up to this Saturday's federal election. Therefore it is natural that voters should think carefully about it before they head to the polling booth. Labor is proposing the NBN as a vital part of its vision to equip the nation for the future. The Coalition believes a minimalist approach will be enough to satisfy the majority of voters.

In an ideal world, an election campaign should prepare voters to cast their vote in accordance with their particular values. Regrettably this campaign has been notable for its negativity and distractions. The media usually determines the agenda of the campaign, and is therefore responsible for much of its negativity.

But individual journalists have nevertheless been successful in revealing some essential truths about the prospective leaders. Tony Abbott told Kerry O'Brien in a 'gotcha' moment on the 7:30 Report: 'I'm no Bill Gates here and I don't claim to be any kind of tech head in all of this.'

This was Abbott's fundamental declaration that he does not understand broadband, and does not care enough about it to get a thorough briefing. Instead he trivialised it on the 7:30 Report and got his shadow spokesperson to announce the policy, as if it is a minor matter.

While it is likely to shape the country's economic future, and is of crucial importance to small business, Abbott appears to view the NBN as an expensive toy for tech heads. The election does not depend upon the tech head vote, and the Coalition's no-frills broadband alternative will be enough to satisfy city dwellers who believe that their current internet connections are fast enough for their purposes.

But it will ensure the nation remains divided between those with and without fast broadband access. It's enough to make you think that the NBN really is the answer, and there could be some substance to the loathed 'Moving Forward' slogan that wrong-footed Labor early in the campaign.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.He also teaches media ethics in the University of Sydney's Department of Media and Communications.

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Existing comments

Abbott has so trivialised the NBN he has even got it mixed up with his breakfast cereal! He said we shouldn't put all our eggs in the high fibre basket... And I thought Howard was bad.

Rex A E Hunt | 16 August 2010  

Having lived in very remote areas of Australia for the past 3 years I concur wholeheartedly. The internet is our lifeline but it is so slow that many sites time out before loading. Having left ADSL2 behind my frustration is great. Even a cloud affects satellite and in areas with mobile coverage the traffic is usually such that mobile wireless only works quickly at midnight. We need a fast broadband service for everyone, not just those who live in the well provided for cities.

Redhillgal | 16 August 2010  

South Korea has magnificent technology and communication is brilliant.....we need to emulate those facilities.

Try travelling outback or even a few kilometres from any town in Australia and you are left bereft of communication unless you spend a fortune on communication devices which also cost huge amounts to activate. Imagine living there!!

Tony must be intelligent as he is a Rhodes scholar but his intellectual rigour is zero
Heaven preserve us from him as PM

GAJ | 16 August 2010  

Michael Mullins & REDHILLGAL miss the point, Abbott has not said "no better broadband", he has justifiably queried whether fibre to every home for $43 Billion is warranted. Undoubtedly all copper infrastructure will be replaced by fibre-optics, it is happening now as it is a cheaper alternative as well as providing the opportunity for increased bandwidth for the customers that can afford to pay. What is not said is that this banswidth needs huge investment in other network elements, mostly large servers and routers using vast amounts of electricity.

Abbott's promise of a minimum of 10 Mb/s is an ideal compromise as a starting point. That is sufficient for HD video. Obviously large businesses and hospitals need more capacity, but it is already available on fibre from, Telstra, Optus and several other utility companies.

Finally there is a huge growth in mobile broadband which in turn reduces the demand for broadband capacity to the home in the same way as mobile phones have caused a continuing decline in Telstra's copper line rental.

Do we really need another Government owned Telco? I do not think so, they sold the one they owned previously.

Robert Clemesha | 16 August 2010  

Certainly, Tony Abbott is a very clever political operator but in no way is he an intelligent political leader. Apart from that, the thought of Australia having a luddite as P.M. is too appalling to contemplate.

D.D. | 16 August 2010  

Kerry O'Brien missed the "gotcha!" moment when Tony Abbott said he was no techno head. The strongest arguments in favour of NBN are not technical. They are economic and social. Abbott has the intelligence to learn the economic benefits. He may already know them but may have decided that there is more political value in manipulating the ignorance (and fear?) about technological progress that exists in many sections of the community. The government has done a poor job in educating the general population in this regard.
As for the social arguments, anything that helps build unity and more cohesion in a society is anathema to pugnacious individualists like Abbott.

It seems to me that Abbott may have decided it was easier to portray NBN as a geeks' indulgence than try to rebut the economic and social reasons that the government is advancing, if not all that well. Senator Conroy regretably is too much like Abbott in his pugnacity.

Uncle Pat | 16 August 2010  

The Liberals claim that the new broadband network will be a "White Elephant". The "Rogue elephant" is Telstra who has a monopoly on the copper network which is past its use by date and is a liability. For phone traffic people use mobile phones and commuters. The directors will be glad to dispose of it and concentrate on their other services. Labour is expected to split telstra into two. The new broadband company should place fibre in the ducts noe owned by Telstra, in place of the copper wire. This should save them money.

Although competition is a good idea in most situations. there are cases where it concerns fixed assets when it is essential to have a monopoly under government guidance. It would be absurd to have two water and sewage pipes to ones home, which is the logic of free market economics.

john Ozanne | 16 August 2010  

ROBERT CLEMESHA needs to know that mobile broadband is often slowed to dialup speed when there are lots of subscribers online. And it is both very expensive with limited plans available. In many places only Telstra plans are available.

Redhillgal | 16 August 2010  

The Howard Government were the same, and we are entirely aware just how adoring Abbott is of Howard. The policy area of infrastructure was treated the same way as health was under the Coalition - with disdain and the endless opportunistic 'blame game' with the States. We cannot retreat there and entrust The Conservatives. How much more negative can their campaign get?!

Karen-Maree Kelly | 16 August 2010  

The National Broadband Network Policy is the one issue that crosses gender and generation and geography. For me it's a no-brainer and I am astounded that the Liberal Party is literally wanting to lead us back to the future.

anne garvan | 16 August 2010  

The roads at peak hour in every capital city are gridlocked. 46 billion would fix them all, and would not be outdated by new technology. I think labor's plan, which is reliant on physical networks could be one of the biggest waste of money this country has known.

man of faith | 16 August 2010  

If anyone out there needs convincing that Abbott's Old Guard will drag this country back 3-4 decades, listen carefully, he's not even in this decade let alone century. Forget the blown ip xenophobia of the Coalition's answer to a sustainable population, keep those 'darkies' out. Forget their economic management skills based on keeping the wealthy (e.g. miners) wealthy or their take on education and employment. Abbott's answer to Labor's NBN is simply, I don't know and I don't want to know. Is this really the kind of leader to lead the kind of country that we want? God help us all this coming Saturday if the ballot falls in Abbott's favour.

Alex Njoo | 16 August 2010  

I live in East Perth, close to the city and to a telephone exchange but I do not get the internet connection speed I need, let alone that which I want.

Rarely would I download a film or something like that. But, as I work on the ethics of research involving animals and humans, I need access to research conducted in Australia and other countries and fast access to other ethicists and researchers.

And as a 73 year old human being I will welcome access to and use of eHealth and video conferences with my GP and other doctors.

And lots more. Even to the new information and dialogue Eureka Street will be able to provide.

Gerry Costigan | 16 August 2010  

Its time to imagine the future and not use old frameworks from the past. Our children from the bush deserve the best that the city can offer. It won't be a luxury, it will be a technical lifeblood. Its called research and development, or simply planning ahead.

Dawn Baker | 16 August 2010  

Michael is right to deplore Abbott's attitude to the NBN and his trashing of the 'digital divide' (where is the National Party in all this policy making?) but he is wrong when he says it is the only major point of difference.

Don't forget Abbott's cow-boy attitude to resource depletion, as illustrated both in his opposition to a sensible resource tax regime and his dismissal of the problems being generated by man-made CO2. And if you think 'WorkChoices' is dead, think again.

Trevor | 16 August 2010  

This is such a partisan and unnecessary article for this website.

You would have been better of asking questions about the NBN, and why it will cost $500 for someone to install, and 3x as much as regular internet in monthly fees. Not to mention the enormous cost blowouts that are set to occur in its installation.

This is a policy that is not visionary at all. It is a policy that only the rich will have a use for, and yet another nail in the coffin of the marginalised whom society has consigned to a lower level of citizenship.

John Watson | 16 August 2010  

I think we should respect Tony Abbott for being honest. It is rare for politicians to admit that they do not know everything. I think we all should be worried about Labor trying to create a new monopoly with its own fibre network. Labor also plans to introduce censorship. We already have laws to combat illegal activities on the Internet and censorship will be just another restriction on our freedom. Our liberties are not lost overnight, but given away bit by bit.

Beat Odermatt | 17 August 2010  

It's time to imagine the future and not use old frameworks from the past. Our children from the bush deserve the best that the city can offer. It won't be a luxury, it will be a technical lifeblood. It's called research and development, or simply planning ahead.

Dawn Baker | 17 August 2010  

The 43 billion expenditure will be a capital item and not appear in the budget as an expense, so a political dodge there. Further the government has not set out a cost-benefit analysis using traditional or even social accounting they are just saying "hey this is gonna be great". The speech which Conroy gave the National Press Club when he launched this was about the benefits of the web, none of his pitch was specific to THIS plan.

Finally and crucially, technology is changing so quickly, faster than any previous era perhaps. What is cutting edge hardware now may not be next year or in five years. Imagine it is 1900 and Andrew Barton is launching a series of tubes which deliver coal to people's houses direct. Or it is 1905 and the government announces the biggest revamp of horse troughs ever! None of us know whether broadband will be good for generations or be obsolete by 2012. So building it involves a lot of money, guesswork and risk. This should be done by the private sector, not because they are better at it but because if they get it wrong it is their problem not ours.

Andrew Coorey | 20 August 2010  

With the speed of technology and its development do you really think this will get rolled out completely - and when it does, it will be out of date. Maybe Tony is not so wrong after all! Go WIRE - LESS! Less Cables!

Jane | 20 August 2010  

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