Thursday, 23 May 2013

NBN: The Topsy Turvy Debate

What has marked the "NBN Debate" is the degree of emotion, insult, abuse & attack and the number of highly vocal proponents for each of the two political proposals. The response is out of all proportion to the issue. Something very strange is going on...

This piece is about framing simple, fundamental questions and proposing some answers to them.

There is a simple truth, brilliantly summed up by the Bureau of Statistics in 2001, that is constantly overlooked in this debate. Since the 1850's Australians have been at the forefront of Communications, the NBN is just a continuation of that struggle communicating in our Wide Brown Land:
True to form, Australia was in the forefront of adopting these new developments.

The Topsy-Turvey Debate:
 What's important isn't discussed and what's trivial, is cause for endless turmoil.

I've seen some very controversial and divisive public debates, but none like this over a relatively arcane and to most, irrelevant, technical issues:
  • The 60's & 70's Vietnam War moratorium and Conscription debate.
  • The "Right to Choose" abortion debate, still an issue for conservative religions.
  • Indigenous Australians, voting rights, self-determination, the "Stolen Generation" Apology.
  • Equal pay for women
  • Ending of the Death Penalty
  • Euthanasia
For many, these were "Life and Death" or basic Health issues or the next best thing, basic Human Rights and the Right to Work or Choose a Career.

The NBN is none of these, it's a modern infrastructure choice, the selection of which won't End the World, in fact, on a daily basis, it will be barely perceptible to many people. It will provide ordinary householders an Internet service "That Just Works", the same for everyone, not "Works, Just".

The longest running, and potentially most expensive, wars Australia has ever been involved in, Iraq & Afghanistan, was entered into by John Howard with no Parliamentary debate and almost no public discussion or dissension. Many Australians have died or had their lives permanently changed in the pursuit of a very nebulous Strategic Principle with no discernible benefit to our country or way of life.

This real Life and Death issue for servicemen, generically "Fighting Terrorism", hasn't been costed, nor are figures publicly released. In 2011 it was estimated to have increased Military spending by over $30 billion with $2-$4 billion extra every year for on-going Field Operations. This was funded directly from our Taxes, giving us no tangible benefit and certainly never the subject of any "Cost Benefit Analysis" by the Coalition. It's a valid, direct comparison and one that is never raised in the public debate.

The multi-billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is another "no tender" Howard era project that is running late, over-budget and probably won't meet its capability targets.

This is the schizoid, or Topsy-Turvey, nature of the current policy debates: expensive Life & Death issues pass by without comment, while insignificant technical issues cause endless, raging debate.

It reminds me of Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" where the Lilliputians have a long-standing war that's riven the nation: Which end of a boiled egg should be opened? The Little-end or Big-End? (A phrase well known to I.T. folk in a different context.)

In my life, I've seen technology change dramatically with little comment, let alone opposition. Even the most fundamental change recently happened almost without comment, while costing households directly many billions, the switch-off of Broadcast Analogue TV after ~50 years:
  • B&W TV introduced late 1950's and replaced by Colour TV in the mid-1970's.
  • Analogue Colour TV superseded by Digital early-mid 2010's.
  • FM radio, then Digital radio.
    • Renumbering of the AM band.
  • Touch-tone dialling
  • Domestic dial-up modems, answering machines and later "Caller Id".
    • relaxation of certification, testing and control of "Attached Devices".
  • Mobile Telephone around 1988, now into its 4th generation.
Why has the NBN been singled out for such a low and bitter campaign?
Is this the topic all the Climate Change Deniers and Climate Skeptics latched onto instead?
It certainly wasn't the dubious privatisation of public infrastructure, such as the Electricity generation & distribution networks. The "gold plating" of which and market manipulation see South Australia with the most expensive electricity in the Western world. Yet this outrageous failure of government to protect public interest and a fundamental commercial & productivity factor goes unremarked. [See end]

It's not obvious "Who Benefits" nor does the usual tell-tale: "Show me the Money!" help.

At the very best, it seems to be politicians arguing over which way to open an egg: Lots of noise, bluster and theatrics, but very, very little substance.

As far as I can judge, this whole debate revolves around maintaining a functional copper telephone network, the sole advantage of which is:
you can plug in your 1925 rotary-dial phone and have it still work!
Not, for me, exactly the strongest or most compelling of arguments.

Electricity transmitters are spending around $46B upgrading poles and wires in the NEM to cater for peak demand (about 8 hours a year)

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