Broadband: Public money to create private profit?

The future of the National Broadband Network is still unclear.

In April 2009, Kevin Rudd, then Labor prime minister, announced the National Broadband Network (NBN), a massive infrastructure project to provide high-speed network access to 93% of Australia, with satellite access for the rest.

Rollout of the network began in Tasmania in July. 2009. Operations began in some other areas in July 2010.

In the wake of the federal election result, the debate around the NBN, especially regarding servicing regional Australia, has become central to negotiations with the bloc of three independents, who it appears will decide which major party forms government. All three come from National Party backgrounds and say they want better regional infrastructure.

The Coalition’s policy, launched in August this year, does not propose a massive investment into public infrastructure, and instead relies heavily on the “ability of the competitive telecommunications market to solve the national broadband debate, with government to step in to provide services where it was not economical for the private sector to do so”, said ZDNET.com.au on August 10.

The NBN was designed to solve three interrelated problems.

The first issue is regional access to modern digital communications: phone, internet and video. What little regional access exists is limited and unreliable, provided only by commercial operators focused on quick profits rather than long-term investment.

The relative isolation of regional Australia has increased over the past 15 years as a result. The privatisation of Telstra from 1997 is widely seen as the central reason for this problem.

Both Labor and the Coalition policies are supposed to address this, but the Coalition's solution is slightly less effective than Labor's.

The second issue is upgrading and providing consistent urban network access. Currently, the fastest access is provided by ADSL2+, which is only available through a limited number of centres. That number does not look likely to increase. So there is a second, though less dramatic, divide between those with internet access and those with broadband.

Even ADSL2+ is limited capacity compared to standard technologies in urban centres in other developed countries. The Coalition’s policy ignores this problem.

The third issue, mostly unstated, is about creating a large new market in Australia, with as few barriers as possible to profit from modern communications.

This explains Labor’s commitment to a $43 billion dollar infrastructure project in communications while not proposing anything even close to that magnitude to deal with climate change.

The need for massive public investment in renewable infrastructure development to avert climate disaster is obvious and urgent. The NBN proposal indicates Labor’s willingness to invest large amounts of money — but only if it is to create space for profit: Labor’s plan involves selling the NBN off to private companies after 10 years.

The plan to privatise can’t be good news to Bob Katter, the Queensland independent who has called the Telstra sale “diabolical”.

Looked at in isolation, Labor's NBN policy is preferable to the Coalition's, for both workers and farmers. Will this issue be enough to break the independents away from helping the Coalition form government? As Green Left Weekly goes to print, it is too early to tell — but I wouldn't pin my hopes on it.

But if Labor forms government and the NBN gets through negotiations largely unamended, there will still be many battles to fight, most of which the mainstream media ignore.

Once massive public investment has been made into the NBN, we will need to campaign against its privatisation.

Labor’s vision of the future Australian network is not one of freedom and access for all (we can expect a Labor government to re-raise the undemocratic internet filter, for example) but one in which the market dominates — the market that created climate change and the global financial crisis.

Right now, should we be spending $43 billion on infrastructure to minimise climate change, or setting up a new market for internet capitalists and their finance industry backers?

Will a national roll-out of new technologies include training — especially in, for example, remote Aboriginal communities — to ensure access and community-created content are maintained or enhanced?

Surely this is a discussion the whole community has a right to have before our money is spent.

A national broadband network is a step forward, but any new technological capacity that puts the profit motive before the communication needs of society will run roughshod over our rights.

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