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A telecommunications wish list for Paul Fletcher, starting with the NBN

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Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher has a big task ahead (Screenshot via YouTube)

With a new Minister for Communication in place, it is an appropriate time to start looking at the telecommunications issues that urgently need to be addressed.

I welcome the new Minister, Paul Fletcher, as he is by far the best qualified within the Government to take on the telecoms portfolio. 

A bi-partisan approach

Paul Fletcher has a big task ahead and I hope he will bring bi-partisan support back to telecoms. There is a bit of healing to do but it is in the national interest to take politics out of telecoms. It simply is too important for the future of our country.

What is not helpful is to keep on talking about the "mess" the Coalition inherited from the Labor Party. I know a popular thing for politicians to do is to always blame the other political party. With three years ahead for the new Government, there is little political need to continue the blame game. If you want to bring all the parties together such an attitude is not helpful.

It would be good if Paul Fletcher could lift himself above pity party politics and start the telecoms discussion with an open mind. Australia is one of the few countries in the world where politicians use telecoms as a political football in order to score points.

The NBN

There are of course a range of issues that need to be addressed. Obviously, the NBN is the biggest one of these. There is no use crying over spilt milk. A positive here is that NBN Co has begun upgrading the HFC part of the NBN infrastructure to FttP and is also testing upgrades from FttN to FttP.

It has slowly been dawning on the Government that the NBN is more than just a telecommunications infrastructure upgrade. Nationwide access to high-speed broadband provides significant increases in productivity that will greatly benefit the economy. With a broad range of commercial, social, political and criminal cyber-attacks it has become clear that if we are not careful, our democracy, as well as our national security, can come under threat. A sturdy telecoms infrastructure is essential and in the end, in relation to fixed networks, needs to be fibre-based.

The party politics around the NBN has seen Australia dropping from the 25th position on the international ladder for broadband quality (measured by speed) to well below 60th position. 

This is in stark contrast to developments in mobile communication, where Australia (led by industry) is right at the top of the international ladder. But this part of the industry is now also under political threat. There are international trade politics (in relation to the Huawei issue). This threatens cost-effective infrastructure and innovation. Furthermore, there are unrealistic industry expectations from the regulator in relation to TPG building a fourth mobile network.

Back to the NBN, apart from the infrastructure element, a more immediate issue that needs to be addressed, is the wholesale price charged by NBN Co (the CVC issue). Solving this issue will also have an effect on the company’s financial situation. Further procrastination of this reform will also be detrimental to future business,  investment and privatisation models.

With Paul Fletcher’s integral knowledge of the telecoms market, we will hopefully also see other long overdue sector reforms.

Consumer safeguards

The telecommunications market is fast moving and issues such as consumer safeguards have been put on the backburner now for more than five years. The same applies to spectrum reforms — also on the agenda since 2014. Draft legislation was published in 2017, but so far without any further follow-up action.

Millimetre wave spectrum

The industry is also waiting for more than a year on Government guidelines in relation to the millimetre wave spectrum, needed for 5G IoT developments.

Before jumping to quick-fix bandaid solutions, the new Minister should first start looking at the long term vision. It is a shame that political-illness separates Australia from many other western nations where there are long-term telecommunications policies in place.

Encryption Act and Social Media Amendment reform

By ignoring industry expert advice and totally relying on police and military sources, we are clearly out of step with other countries. The so-called Encryption Act needs to be reviewed and amendments that were promised need to be implemented.

The same applies to the so-called Social Media Amendment – hastily implemented – this time without any consultation just before the Federal Election, simply aimed at scoring political points. At the time, it was acknowledged that this legislation was flawed and in need of revision.

Serious reform would need to take the "Briggs Review" of Australia’s online safety framework into account, with content reforms needed across broadcasting and the internet. This reform discussion has been going on since 2015 with no action from the Coalition Government. At the same time, they were able to come up with the ill-fated "Christchurch amendment" overnight — totally ignoring all of the work already done in that field.

How unprofessional are these government actions? They don’t address the real issues, they harm the industry and make Australia an international laughing stock.

Vision for the future

My proposal to Paul Fletcher would be to bring the government, the industry and the community together. First, a high strategic policy level, a vision for the future of telecommunications in our country needs to be agreed on. In such a plan, it must be stipulated who is responsible for what (government, industry, community). After that, we can start looking at the many individual issues that need to be addressed again — I suggest in close consultation with all parties involved.

As with so many other national issues, we need the government for long term vision, guidelines and policies; the industry to deliver investment and business models not just based on profitability but also taking into account national interest issues. Equally, consumers will need to take their responsibility in all of this. New technologies need to be used responsibly taking into account security and privacy serious both for themselves as well as for their children, with ongoing education programs a standard element here.

Under the leadership of the new Minister, we can all take responsibility for a well-functioning, safe and healthy digital environment as it will benefit both our society and our economy.

Paul Budde is managing director of Paul Budde Communication, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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