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Broadband Down Under: Isolation Breeds Innovation

By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

One of the plum assignments of my journalism career was co-authoring a report for CIO about IT in Australia. Ten days in Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne (with a weekend jaunt to Tasmania) brought out one key aspect of the Australian attitude toward technology: being isolated from most of the world, they have to be twice as creative.

At that time, in the late 90s, Australia had already deregulated its telecommunications industry (just a year after the U.S.) and developed a state-of-the-art $3 billion national fiber-optic network.

Now, their attitude toward innovation is blossoming yet again: this past February, the first hub of its National Broadband Network (NBN) was deployed in the Queensland community of Townsville.

Overcoming the Broadband Policy Critics

What’s particularly intriguing about the Australian government’s efforts is that it has managed to overcome a rather vocal group of critics who decried the NBN as being too expensive. But interestingly, the Australian attitude favoring innovation has apparently won out.

Not one but two new polls reveal increasing support for the effort. One survey showed 56 percent of respondents in favor of NBN, up from 48 percent a year ago. Opposition to the network dropped from 31 percent to 25 percent.

Another poll focused specifically on what in the U.S. is referred to as NIMBY (not in my back yard) – the attitude of people who want infrastructure improvements as long as they don’t have to look at them. In the Australian poll, 64 percent of respondents said they would happily trade off having a broadband tower close by if the result was faster broadband speeds.

Nor is Australia alone among southern hemisphere nations in its commitment to broadband. The New Zealand government is also pursuing its own national broadband network. Its $3.5 billion investment in an ultrafast broadband network will pay off almost tenfold over 20 years, according to a Bell Labs study.

Broadband Costs vs. Long-Term Benefits

What caused this shift? Interestingly, it appears that, based on some of the reporting that’s come from the Australian Broadcasting Company, people have stopped looking at the significant costs (approximately $50 billion) and started looking at the significant forward-looking benefits, especially for a country that – like the United States – has an extensive rural population.

The ABC’s Nick Ross postulates that health care savings alone – viz. telemedicine, home health care, and other services – will exceed what the NBN will cost. Finally, somebody started looking at the big picture of potential. The Australians’ innate understanding of the need for technological innovation for competitive parity was a key advantage.

Similar infrastructure policy discussions are playing out all over the world, especially in the United States. Historically, the U.S. was able to create an extensive – and expensive – interstate highway system because people understood the benefits.

Those benefits included not only the ability to move troops easily (one mile out of every five on an interstate freeway must be straight in order to allow a troop carrier to land) but also the ability to transport goods more quickly.

But today, with broadband infrastructure questions looming, there doesn’t seem to be the same national commitment to improve the U.S. infrastructure. Communities and carriers are left to roll out independent efforts — in the hope that collectively they constitute a national strategy.

The Australians and others have figured out that it’s more fruitful to make a big commitment. They stopped asking “what’s in it for me?” and started asking “what’s in it for us?” And that’s when it became clear that the NBN could actually be a good forward-looking investment.

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