Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The Internet Gap, Pork & Pigs

CairnsBlog contributing writer Sid Walker, dissects the post-election after-party party...

When the Federal election was called all those weeks ago, I sent an email to the major party candidates in Leichhardt – Charlie McKillop and Jim Turnour – to complain (again) about my ‘internet gap’ and ask them what guarantees they could give me it would be remedied within the next three years.

The Gap

‘Internet gap’? I’ll explain…

I live about ten kilometers from Kuranda. I’m on the phone, but unable to get ADSL (apparently I’m just too far from the local exchange). Hence my only fast internet options are satellite or wireless.

The previous Government arranged generous subsidies, so installing a satellite dish for internet use has been almost free to the customer. However, satellite data costs are high and even moderate usage is expensive. To use 5 – 10 GB of bandwidth per month, as many folk do, costs hundreds of dollars in excess download fees. A similar high cost data cost applies to the newer wireless internet network. By comparison, ADSL users (like users of regular dialup) get unlimited data transfers for affordable monthly fixed fees.
Because of this, many rural and all remote areas remain disadvantaged for high speed internet access - despite the Howard Government’s much-trumpeted Customer Service Guarantee.
Essentially, if you can’t access a suitable telephone connection and you want fast internet, your choice is to pay through the nose or go without.

The emails I sent to both Charlie McKillop and Jim Turnour spelt this out in some detail and asked for detail in return about how each respective party proposed to solve this problem. I made a suggestion: Why not agree to subsidize data transfer rates for rural users whose only high-speed option is satellite or wireless? I pointed out that combined with already-existing satellite installation subsidies, doing that would provide affordable and equitable telecoms access throughout the continent, straight away. Of course, it would also cost government a lot of money – especially because these days, the Government must purchase satellite and /or wireless data-transmission services from private companies.

My emails also complains that while both major parties and all levels of government seemed desperate to build a 4-Lane Highway practically to my gate (even though a high proportion of folk around here don’t want it) – affordable fast internet, which is uncontroversial and relatively inexpensive to install, is still unavailable to many people like me.

Neither party’s announced policy at that time, as far as I could see, guaranteed prompt improvement. Suspicious of fine-sounding pledges that translate to little action on the ground, I asked both politicians for policy detail and an implementation timetable.

Pork

I wanted to cash in, personally, on the major party bidding war, already underway, over the next round of broadband delivery. Both parties were raising the stakes. I wanted to exercise my little bit of sway so my own neighbourhood (along, incidentally, with most of the continent) didn’t miss out again. Self-interest? Sure. The pork-barrel was out. I wanted my bite.

This is how I went…

I happened to speak on the phone, separately, with both Charlie McKillop and Jim Turnour a few days after sending my email. Both recalled receiving the email and broadband was discussed in both conversations.

Charlie, ever the collected and detail-oriented politician, understood my issues and promised to get back after Julie Bishop’s office got back to her. She warned me not to accept guarantees without real detail from Labor. ‘Fibre to the node’, she said, could well be a long time in coming and wouldn’t necessarily reach the doors of folk like me. I thanked her for her advice and said I’d look forward to receiving her letter when she had more information about the Coalition’s policy.

Now, I may have missed it, but I don’t think that promised correspondence ever arrived. As the campaign evolved, quite understandably, Charlie had many other more pressing things to deal with than the minutiae of my nightmarishly specific queries.

My conversation with Jim Turnour was different. He was less familiar with the detail of my letter (but in fairness it was the first time we’d spoken about this rather complicated issue). He extolled the virtues of fibre-to-the-node – Labor’s newly announced initiative. I asked when it would deliver an outcome for me. He couldn’t say. That’s understandable. After all, it was a new policy - and Labor wasn’t even in Government.

Jim sounded harassed and over-stretched and I began to feel rather sorry for him. Too tough, I thought, to make an issue out of not getting a specific guarantee. So I didn’t try. He checked to make sure the telephone chat was enough of an answer for me. Clearly, Jim clearly didn’t want the hassle of getting a complicated letter researched, then approved through Labor HQ. I said OK, not wanting to drive a fellow human being nuts.

Now, vague claims to one side, an impartial judge must score that nil-nil for the two major parties – and nil once again for my neighborhood (and most of the Australian continent).

Jim Turnour and the ALP have since made it into government. Both have jumped very large hurdles. Congratulations!

Once again, I’ll just wait and see whether affordable broadband reaches my doorstep within the next three years. Occasionally I have guests from overseas. Most of them are polite about my internet connection. Sometimes they chuckle. I’m used to the jokes. I can put up with them a while longer.

Pigs

The Howard Government did the country a huge disservice when it privatized Telstra - a highly profitable publicly owned instrumentality that held an effective and quite rational monopoly over telecommunications in Australia. Sure, it was feather-bedded, inefficient and run by dead-heads who initially saw the internet as a nuisance. But each of those problems could have been addressed while retaining public ownership of the essential network. We have lost that great advantage and gained nothing in return – nothing that couldn’t have been added, like plug-in extras, to this single network.

Providing affordable bandwidth throughout a continent – even a continent as large as Australia – is a do-able thing. It’s not like providing a complete highway network. The cost of telecoms infrastructure is relatively low; there are a range of fast-improving technological options and the environmental implications are manageable.

We live in a capitalist society. The private sector has a major role to play in delivering bandwidth throughout the continent – just as it has a role in selling information, entertainment and other media services. Many of the best new telecoms technologies come from overseas. For all these reasons, “opening the market to competition” sounds like a good idea.

Unfortunately, no government in Australia since the internet / telecoms revolution began about 15 years ago found an appropriate way to deploy competitive forces while protecting the public interest. It’s not clear they really tried. To put it bluntly, our Governments have been content-free zones when it comes to telecoms policy. In the absence of understanding and direction from politicians, policy has been steered by powerful vested interests.

The nonsense started in the Hawke/Keating’s era, with a major duplicate roll-out of Telstra and Optus cables. Both these fibre-optic networks serviced essentially the same zones in the same capital cities. When Howard got elected in 1996 with a mandate for his notorious ‘sell Telstra to save the environment’ policy, silliness went into hyper-drive. We now have much ado about competition where there’s already plenty; but no decent service at all in areas where delivery of high-speed communications is inherently unprofitable. Just as the critics of privatization always predicted…

It’s not only that we’ve missed out on an early continent-wide rollout of affordable bandwidth. We’ve also muddied the distinction between media and telecoms interests. That is not in the public interest at all.

It’s a like letting major trucking companies build their own roads (or lease existing roads from the Department of Main Roads) – so they can charge toll fees as well as restrict access. This type of thing allows corporate interests to make an absolute motza through vertical integration of different enterprises. Under this model of capitalism, you buy a Goods Ltd pork chop from a Goods Lt pig grown on a Goods Ltd farm, chopped to bits at a Goods Ltd abattoir, transported by a Goods Ltd truck to a Goods Ltd Supermarket on Goods Ltd Avenue. Get my drift?

I reiterate, the state’s role in relation to telecoms is fundamentally simple. It is there to provide access to all its citizens. That’s the nub of it. To achieve this, it may well employ a range of private contractors for both construction and maintenance. These contracts should be open to public tender, real competition and frequent review. The State may encourage a range of technologies from the evolving choice.

The State may also play additional roles that others are keen on (censorship, electronic surveillance etc), which I, as a libertarian, would sooner entrust to my dog. It should certainly undertake other ancillary roles I’m more enthusiastic about such as environmental regulation, guaranteeing privacy and ensuring freedom of information flow and equitable access to the network for all producers and consumers.

Even so, the State’s primary role is to guarantee low and/or no cost bandwidth. Given that a network is only as comprehensive as the people and places it connects, does it make sense that the heavy-duty neural pathways of this network - mainly cables under the ground - are owned by different private companies? I don’t think so. Surely that’s a natural for public ownership - like water pipes and sewerage systems?

In the early 90s, with ‘economic rationalism’ all the rage in Canberra, smart big business interests moved in on the governments of the day to and talked themselves into a huge chunk of enormous wealth just about to be generated. A technological revolution was underway. They wanted to profit from it (fair enough). They also wanted to control its direction and application (not fair). They achieved their objectives.

As a result, I am still, in 2007, unable to sit at home and watch Russian, or Egyptian, or Venezuelan TV… except for an extremely limited selection made by SBS editors whom I neither know nor trust. If I want to study at home, I cannot receive lectures via a broadband connection. I can’t video conference with friends and clients…

I could go on and on (and on) about all the things I’d like to do with high-speed internet. I’m sure everyone has their own list. It’s limited only by our combined imaginations. Environmental constraints are low. To achieve continuing economic growth in a zero-emissions economy, universal and affordable broadband (ideally it should be free) is an absolute must.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There some things I can do, right now.

I can buy one of News Ltds ubiquitous newspapers (Cairns Post, Courier Mail, The Australian etc etc) and read full-page advertisements promoting competing broadband services that I can’t actually receive.

I can (and often do) receive phone calls from desperate telephone sales staff working in call centers around the world trying to sell me broadband services that don’t actually exist (for me).

This clearly makes a lot of sense to a handful of vested interests – but to the public as a whole. it is amounts to complete lunacy.

Indeed, it’s daylight robbery. If this incessant marketing swill had been spent productively, I suspect we could already have wired almost all of populated Australia with fibre optic cable to the door – complemented by subsidized and therefore comparably-priced satellite delivery for the rest. In late 2007, we’d wouldn’t need a debate about how to build the new telecoms revolution. We’d be experiencing, enjoying and profiting from it, right now.

Telecoms policy from Keating to Howard has served big business interests and artificially narrowed the enormous information choice and power that could – and should – be within Australians’ reach, wherever they are.

I’m encouraged by Rudd’s apparent commitment to delivering affordable broadband. I share Lobor’s view that rapid expansion of the fibre-optic network is a key part of the way forward. I’ll see what happens… again. But it’s too early to throw my sombrero in the air, not as long as the likes of Sol Trujillo have their massive snouts in our trough.

Rudd may find more diplomatic ways to say this, but essentially, he needs to tell lobbyists from News Ltd, Telstra etc to mind their own businesses within policy set by government – and stop trying to run governments and government policy.

If Rudd can do that, survive and thrive he’ll be the most impressive PM in Australian history.

As a minor historical footnote, he’ll also turn at least one jaded skeptic into a True Believer. I may then disconnect entirely from the internet and concentrate on growing organic turnips.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Telstra has only one bottom line now....profits. You can forget any service which might cost them more money than returns.
Back in the days when it was "the peoples communication", sure Telstra would expend monies linking a few bushies with the national grid. Those days are long gone.

Anonymous said...

Gee, how quickly everyone forgets the Telstra I remember - the arrogance, the delays, the rudness and the "screw you because there is nowhere else to go" attitude.

I'm not saying telstra is great now, but it does a disservice to remember it as providing any level of customer service. It was crap, rude and if it had truly been providing the wonderful level of service people seem to now remember, it never would have been privatised.

Anonymous said...

Telstra's service has not improved. I have been going backwards and forwards to the Customer Service Centre, making phone calls etc trying to get them to understand my husband is dead and I want the mobile phone now in my name. It has been a nightmare.

mic said...

Sid you are exactly right when you say that the big mistake in privatising Telstra was to sell the infrastructure!!

Thanks to the stupid 'privatise everything' ideology of the neo-liberals (who've been in govt for over twenty years now) Australians are stuck with an un-workable system.

Yeah, imagine if some private company owned all our roads, or the air or the water.

Sure, outsource the selling, marketing and servicing etc, but keep the network and the infrastructure in public hands!

Way back in '05 the State of the Regions report worked out it would cost $3bn to build a decent network servicing the whole continent .. and that we'd make the money back in three years, from our improved connection to the world.

http://www.alga.asn.au/sor/2005/

Hope you get a good outcome for your own broadband .. eventually.

cheers, michael