When Malcolm Turnbull emerged from the post-election Coalition reshuffle as our new Shadow Communications Minister, the tech industry breathed a collective sigh of relief. But despite early hopes for a fresh start and new approach, he’s mostly delivered more of the same.
Turnbull’s predecessor, Tony Smith, started well when he was appointed in December 2009. Like Turnbull, he embarked on a hand-shaking marathon and met with industry experts and journalists.
Tech-savvy Australians had hope the somewhat unpopular Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, could be trumped and replaced by a fresh approach on ISP filtering and high-speed broadband.
But while the unpopular filtering issue was eventually taken off the plate by Joe Hockey, broadband stayed stuck in limbo as Smith made himself scarce – emerging only to take pot-shots at the National Broadband Network over the lack of a cost benefit analysis.
When the Coalition’s broadband policy finally emerged, it was not with a bang but a whimper. Industry experts generally panned it and Smith dropped under the radar to avoid detailed technical questioning.
“The general consensus is that it was a bit short of the mark,” Australian Computer Society CEO, Bruce Lakin, said at the time. “On first hearing it doesn’t seem to be technically elegant or offer the platform to move with the evolution of technology.
“Senator Conroy made the argument that it was last century’s technology and I’d tend to support that.”
Australian Information Industry Association CEO, Ian Birks, described the policy as “undercooked” and called for an approach in line with NBN.
“For the real vision of a digital economy we need to talk about higher speeds than [12Mbps],” he said. “Fundamentally, 100Mbps should be a starting point and not an end point.”
Smith had decided to focus on mainstream voters with a limited technical understanding. The NBN became a “Rolls Royce” we didn’t need because 12Mbps minimum peak speed was good enough for an indefinite amount of time.
Fast forward to October and Turnbull is the new Communications Minister-in-waiting. Once again the broadband debate is stuck on financial and not technical issues.
“We’re a little disappointed that the focus is on cost-benefit analyses and economic grounds rather than the much bigger picture of how you address systemic market failure,” Internet Industry Association CEO, Peter Coroneos, said. “It’d be a tremendous shame to lose this opportunity purely for political reasons but the Opposition is there to oppose – Tony Abbott’s made that quite clear – and the job for the industry is to keep promoting the benefits of broadband.”
All the industry representatives ARN spoke to were curious and/or confused about where the Coalition is headed on broadband. A new policy is coming, but Turnbull won’t say when or give any indication of what it’ll look like. He’s doing interviews, but most of his comments focus directly on the money – the feeling of déjà vu is everywhere.
The bottom line is that Turnbull must deliver an alternative, superior policy as soon as possible. Dumbing down the NBN debate almost won the Coalition the election, but it won’t work in opposition.
And if it doesn’t change its stripes soon, it risks losing relevance for both the IT community and the general public on this issue.