Digital infrastructure in post-pandemic era should be left to experts, not politicians

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Building a stronger infrastructure to handle further crises will be best left to experts in various fields with less political interference, writes Paul Budde.

DURING THIS CORONAVIRUS CRISIS, it is great to see that our politicians are now respecting the medical scientists and professionals and are working very closely with them. Will our politicians now also listen to the experts in the other major problems that are facing us such as climate change, renewable energy, water management and so on?

I would also like to extend this to our information and communications technology (ICT) industry. Both in relation to the bushfires and the pandemic, we have seen the stress on the infrastructure and on the people that are suffering from poor quality services.

It is also very clear how important our digital infrastructure is in times of crisis. It is safe to say that without that infrastructure, there would have been many more deaths and a far more serious collapse of our economy. It would have been far more difficult to communicate, to work and study from home, to consult healthcare workers, use apps and so on.

This national infrastructure is critical and we should stop the partisan bickering around this and put party politics aside. The message here is also to listen to the professionals, to safeguard democracy and, of course, also listen to the community.

The community at large agrees with the way the Government uses specialists to manage the pandemic. Climate change and renewable energy reports from the experts are supported by 80% of the population. The NBN in its initial fibre to the home (FttH) format, including the funding for it, was supported by 80% of the citizens and 70% of businesses.

When back in 2006-2013 I advised the Government on the NBN, my recommendation was that the Government should indicate what they need from digital infrastructure. For example, do they require the network to provide education services, healthcare services, government services, IoT application for smart energy, automated vehicles, traffic and streetlighting managements? Once they have done that, then they should ask ICT experts to design the technologies needed to develop such an infrastructure.

In that process, the ICT experts need to work closely with the experts in the sectors mentioned above to ensure the best service outcomes. Of course, the Government can include budget options as well.

Already in 2007-2008 it became clear that an FttH network would be the best solution. When we had the Global Financial Crisis, the Labor Government of the day – as the current Liberal Coalition Government is doing in this crisis – came up with stimulus packages. The NBN was chosen to be one of those projects and suddenly the budget for such a project became available. They estimated the project to be finished by 2020 at a price ticket of around $43 billion.

When the Coalition Government came into power in 2013, I had a couple of meetings with the then Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, as well as with his advisors. My recommendation was leaving the plan for a nationwide FttH plan in its place. However, if they were worried about the costings, they should develop a staged plan around it. I suggested to leave the ADSL2+ and the HFC network for later and start with upgrading the rest of the network with FttH.

Malcolm Turnbull agreed with me that FttH was the best solution, but he argued our country could not afford this. So, he did not accept my suggestion to spread the costs out of a longer period and stick to FttH. In the end, of course, he never delivered his second-rate version of the NBN by the promised date of 2016 nor was he able to deliver this within the budget he promised of $25 billion.

While I agree with Mr Turnbull’s assessment of the political situation in this country, the unacceptable political power of the ultra-Right conservatives and the undermining of our democracy by News Corp, he clearly did not tell the whole story about the NBN; sadly, a matter of selected reporting.

I would argue that we now have a great opportunity to reset the situation, abandon party politics and, based on lessons learned from the pandemic and the bushfires, start planning for our digital infrastructure of the future. If we look at previous crises such as the Great Depression in the 1930s and WWII, we see that such events can lead to great renewal. Looking back at those crises, it was new leaders that took their societies forwards as the old guard simply wanted to restore the old order.

As in the past, this could be a long battle in itself. It will be interesting to see what will happen after this crisis. We are in desperate need of new leaders

The current government, before the crisis, wanted to leave as much as possible to market forces. The bushfires, as well as the pandemic, make it clear that we do need the Government taking a greater role in the critical aspects of our society and our economy. Suddenly the national interest is back on the agenda. Obviously, healthcare and social service are key here.

I mentioned the critical role that our digital infrastructure is playing in the current crisis. I argue that we now need to review the digital infrastructure of our country for the long term.  This future will be different and we are already seeing this happening during the crisis. We will work differently, we will educate differently, we will shop differently, we will entertain and socialise differently and we will operate our healthcare system differently.

The current crisis is estimated to continue for another year or two, where we will have lots of social and economic uncertainty. Organisations loathe such situations but are forced to take that into account as their survival as well as their staff will depend on it. For that reason, they will maintain, upgrade and extend current online arrangements in business, education and government healthcare. There is no way that we suddenly will go back to business as usual and to a world where the current second rate NBN is good enough.

Our future ahead will see more teleconferencing (Zooming), teleworking, telehealth, online shopping and online entertainment. Sectors such as healthcare and education did find themself on the back foot in relation to their adaptation of online service. However, these sectors had to learn very fast and, as a result, we now have many (upcoming) experts in the above-mentioned sectors.

These people are forced to look at ways to utilise the ICT infrastructure that we have for the new way of operation for their organisations. With these experts now on board, we can be sure that a whole new range of services will be developed in order to prepare us better for the next crisis. It is critical that the ICT industry works very closely with these experts. These new developments will have to be led by these sectors supported by ICT and not the other way around. Unfortunately, the ICT industry often works the other way around. The experts in the sectors need to lead this process.

So, while the NBN has been standing up to the increased demand during the crisis, it is important to recognise that more sophisticated services will be developed. They will include video, imaging and other high-bandwidth-eating applications. We do need to upgrade the infrastructure to FttH (or FttC — fibre to the curb).

Cybersecurity will be a key issue in any new infrastructure development and that requires a high level of network stability, sustainable and robustness — something FttH can deliver. In order to handle the increased use of the network, significantly more capacity is needed. Again, FttH delivers that.

However, I am happy to go back to the advice I gave the Government 15 years ago and not mention FttH as the upfront technical solution. Let the Government develop a national digital vision and a strategy for national services needed for those sectors with the aim to ensure that we are best equipped to handle any new crisis. Based on such a vision and strategy, based on the input of the sectors and together with independent ICT experts, they can then develop the technical design. This should be done in a factual way supported by sound data. But for heaven's sake, let us not again get politicians based on party politics involved in the technical designs.

An interesting observation was made by my American colleague, Brian Harris. How many submissions, commissions and enquiries have we seen where professionals, scientists and experts are putting in months of work in order to provide sound plans only to see career politicians sweeping in at the last minute to make changes and derail the process, mostly based on party politics? These politicians have not read the submissions, they have not heard the testimonies from the experts and have not been involved in the hearings. Yet they use their political power to overwrite the work of the experts. This unravels the work of these professionals and results in ongoing unpredictable decision-making processes and an unprofessional environment.

Lessons learned from the bushfires, climate change, renewable energy, the pandemic and the NBN clearly indicate that we need professionals to make those decisions, not career politicians. Humans are rational beings and we use reason to gain knowledge, to understand and to progress. We should not allow beliefs and ideologies to overwrite reason and rationality.

In those national interest cases, the role of politicians is to work in a bipartisan way, together with the specialists. They should not use these national issues for point-scoring in the media or for scaremongering. The pandemic shows that this is possible, so let us from now continue the road. Because of their handling of the crisis, politicians have gained the trust of the electorate, so that must also be good for the votes.

National crises are creating anxiety in the community and this leads to panic, fake news and misinformation. True leadership is aimed at lowering the levels of anxiety and to work collaboratively to address the issues. This creates a society where sound decisions can be made that are supported by the wider community. We see in countries like the USA, the UK, Russia, India and Brazil what happens if populist politics are used rather than collaborative decision-making processes based on the work of professionals.

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

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