Broadband Reform: Getting it right

| May 11, 2009
May 2009 topic of the month

Australia could learn from Canada what a meaningful public consultation on broadband reform looks like.

The Commonwealth’s decision to build the National Broadband Network (NBN) provides an opportunity to fix the policy failures of the last two decades. Despite liberalising the telecommunications industry in the early 1990s, Australia fell well behind similar nations such as Canada in the deployment and take-up of broadband services by the early 2000s. Many believed that Telstra was responsible for the slow deployment and adoption of broadband, but recent statistics suggest otherwise. On many counts, Australia and Canada are on par for average prices and speeds, but at June last year, Australian households were still 12% behind their Canadian counterparts.

Based on my comparative research on broadband deployment and adoption in Canada and Australia, a significant factor which appears in communications policy is how it establishes the rules of the game. An obvious difference between Canada and Australia is the extent that communities are involved in the process. The effects of these differences have been brought to light by technological convergence and its impact upon traditional industry structures. Until broadband, Canada and Australia have been generally similar in the deployment and adoption of communications technologies since the time of the telegraph.

It may well be serendipitous that Canada’s federal system is characterised by political power distributed among each level of government, especially in communications policy. Although recent court rulings have found that the federal government is responsible for telecommunications in particular, the rules of the game established from the time of the telegraph are ignored by politicians at their own peril. The situation in Australia is considerably different, with governments controlling electronic communications networks, for the most part, since their beginnings. An historical example is a useful analogy: the first private telegraph network in Australia – built in defiance of the South Australian colonial government’s directions – was promptly dismantled by the government.

May 2009 topic of the monthThe limitations of previous technologies allowed the divergence of content and carriage, and the concept of the common carrier ensured, for many decades, that the providers of infrastructure could not determine which content was carried. Broadcasting was somewhat different but national content provisions and media ownership restrictions in both Canada and Australia ensured some limitations were imposed on the content provided by broadcasters. The nature of high bandwidth networks is changing the divergence model and newspapers appear to be the first casualties, although it is obvious that television networks are also feeling the pinch.

A major difference between Canada and Australia is the extent of citizen involvement and the way the public interest is determined through policy. Canada does not have all the answers but there is clearly a correlation between citizen innovation and involvement at the provincial (state) and municipal levels, and the adoption and take-up of broadband technologies by households. If broadband reform is to enable Australians to take advantage of this substantial investment in public infrastructure, they must be involved. Not simply consulted, but involved in experimenting with broadband at the local level. The old rules simply don’t apply to the broadband era and this reform process must change them if we are to get it right.

Michael de Percy lectures in Government-Business Relations at the University of Canberra. He is a graduate of the Royal Military College Duntroon and also works as a consultant with various public, private and community organisations. His research interests include broadband policy and the use of new media in citizen engagement.

Michael’s blog is called ‘Broadbanding the Nation’