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Thread: Format Wars, Standards & Competition

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A Brave New Broadband


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Date: Sun, 26 Apr 2009 21:19:05 +1000

This blog has, from time to time, contained a few humble but critical paragraphs concerning Australian government policy, especially in regard to communications and IT. Now, after many years of truly appalling policy decisions, the announcement of a new broadband network for Oz has left your humble blogger almost lost for words.

Communications and IT has been used as a political football for many decades now. The previous government used the portfolio to attack the ABC and to leverage the sell-off of Telstra. This lead to some good short-term political outcomes and some very poor results for the communications and IT sector. One of the figures who was pivotal in the negotiations was the fiercely independent Senator from Tasmania, Brian Harridine, who had very definite and strong views regarding morality and considerably milder and perhaps even wishy-washy attitudes to competition and communications standards and protocols. And that dear reader was more or less how we ended up in the current mess where it is illegal to view sexually explicit material on a network dominated by a privately owned utility that had previously been in the public domain.

Of course during all of this horse-trading, a long line of ministers for communications and IT (mostly ignorant of the topic) have paid lip-service to the "Importance of the Internet and the information super-highway" ... generally the phrase has been uttered in a tone of breathless reverence that earlier civilizations might have reserved for magical incantations.

While it is true that the Internet is a vital part of our infrastructure and its importance is bound to increase, there are some powerful interest groups who would like to regulate the new media in the same way that earlier media has been regulated. Some of these groups include large conglomerates who have made a lot of money out of existing vertically tiered distribution models, politicians who find unregulated media challenging and disruptive and some such as the former senator for Tasmania who are concerned about the "morality" of the content.

The idea of taming the Feral Web has been a long cherished notion, especially by those who don't really understand how the Internet works. And this hope has been pandered to by spin-doctors, technocrats and slick salespeople who find the potential sales and regular ministrations of "snake-oil" very attractive.

A moment's reflection will reveal glaringly obvious differences between the new and old media. The old media consisted of huge centralised expensive production facilities. There was a clear division between producers and consumers. It was a distribution model that was suited to central control and regulation. The new media is also vast but extraordinarily decentralised and cheap. There is no longer a clear delineation between producers and consumers.

In days long bygone, some Australians endowed with exceptionally strong moral constitutions would sequester themselves in dark smoke-filled rooms viewing various content for hours on end. The marathon immersions in the dark-side were carried out by these stalwarts in order to protect us more weak-minded individuals from the corrupting influence of the more salacious and pernicious items that would have been otherwise available for general consumption. This arrangement started to unravel in the sixties in the face of civil disobedience and a swelling influx of "inappropriate content".

The concern about the corrupting influence of "inappropriate content" has remained a high priority in the minds of some would-be guardians of public morality. Since the great shift in public standards that began in the sixties, they have ceded considerable ground in the defense of "decency", as what was once considered pornography has become widely adopted in the mainstream as "erotica".

The deal that was done earlier this century made some semblance of political sense. It enabled the Howard government to complete their task of total privatisation of the telecommunications network and to consolidate their assault on the ABC whilst giving a sop to the Christian right wing that would prefer a complete ban on pornography. However, us poor long suffering network customers got a dreadful system that moved at a pace that made snails seem positively racey and was overshadowed by a 300 lb (privatised) gorilla called Telstra. The bone that the party bosses threw to the moral minority had the extraordinary effect of making it illegal to view content online that could legally be purchased at newsagents or viewed on in-house motel video channels. It just didn't make any sense -- But it was unenforceable and nobody really cared.

Or at least not until the current minister announced that they would be enforcing the law. Which is when your humble blogger started to make his own humble contributions to the topic.

One of the tricks employed by spin doctors has been conflation of the issues of paedophilia and pornography. Our current minister has been more raucous than Long John Silver's Parrot, squawking "Child Pornography" rather than "Pieces Of Eight".

And now as we are face the most serious financial crisis since The Great Depression, there has been a stampede back to Keynesian notions of market failures and the occasional requirement for government stimulus and or regulation. The appaling state of Telstra is a result of this mismanagement, political horse-trading, greed and stupidity.

And so, the failure of communications policy in Australian has been threefold. And thus we have had T1, T2 and T3. At each stage there has been an opportunity to fix the problem and the opportunity has been missed. The new 43 billion dollar proposal from the government will in effect be T4.

If they get it right, it will not only "stimulate" the economy, it will lay the groundwork for an entirely new economy. One which must come to grips with Global Warming, resource depletion, over-population and also try to get to grips with the occasional though seemingly persistent catastrophic collapses of market-based economies.

And so the new broadband policy is bold, innovative and truly grand in scope. Which is why your humble blogger is so surprised. It just isn't the sort of thing that governments usually do.

The really big danger for the Rudd government will be the temptation to fiddle with the policy settings. We all know that the ban on porn is ridiculous and unenforceable. But couldn't we try to work it into the new network? After all the government effectively owns the network, so why not clean it up at the same time? Such might be the thinking amongst spin-doctors and political advisors. But such thinking would be fatal for the new broadband project and for the taxpayer billions that will fund the scheme. Internet censorship is a tar-baby. And politicians that try to tackle the issues of censorship will stick to it like flies stuck on flypaper.

The only way for this scheme to work is for government to take ownership of the network but to keep well away from selling, managing, or controlling the content. In the past it has been possible to make private public models work. Either by competition, i.e setup a public entity that competes directly with a private entity or setup a public statutory authority that owns the network so that private participants can sell competing services on the network. This means that the new entity must either compete directly with Telstra and make it clear that it will do so ... Or maintain strict net neutrality so that a large number of service providers can compete on a genuine level playing field. And after all that's what the competition advocates tell us is the reason for privatisation in the first place.

Or at least that is, in my humble opinion.


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