Jock Given

It’s time for a bit of fan post about Jock Given, Swinburne’s Professor of Media and Communications.

Why a fan post? Maybe it’s his recent in-depth dissection of the Australian Government’s implementation plan for the National Broadband Network. Maybe it’s his long review essay, also in Inside Story, about the future of books and print. Maybe it’s his fine monograph of 2003, Turning Off the Television, about the history and future of Australian broadcasting and communications policy.

In fact, any way you slice it, Given’s work has become central to this field. He’s got that rare combination of incisive analysis and clear, witty prose.

Take, for example, his discussion of the National Broadband Network, one of the best short introductions to this bewilderingly complex topic you’re likely to find:

WHAT McKinsey and KPMG have delivered is the most substantial public analysis of an Australian communications infrastructure project since the domestic satellite system in the 1980s. This is a major benefit, though not necessarily a good omen. AUSSAT racked up $800 million in debt within a few years. Voluminous public documentation doesn’t always lead to great decisions.

Indeed, in Australian communications, the size of the study is generally indirectly proportional to its influence. The bulky Davidson Inquiry recommending competition in telecommunications and the multi-volume Broadcasting Tribunal inquiry recommending the introduction of cable TV, both in the early 1980s, achieved close to zero. The Productivity Commission’s year-long inquiry into broadcasting in 2000 was largely ignored. But Kim Beazley’s few-page statement about telecommunications competition in 1990 blew the industry apart. By this standard, the two-and-a-half-page media release announcing the NBN in April 2009 was bound to change the world.

The McKinsey/KPMG study is testimony to the sea-change in telecommunications policy in the last two and a half years. For twenty years, both sides of politics have been getting the government out of the telecommunications business, first by allowing private competitors to take on the state-owned monopoly that ran the country’s telecoms for ninety years, then selling down the state’s ownership of it. When new mobile and fixed-line networks were built in the 1990s and 2000s, communications ministers didn’t pour over technology choices, costs, revenues, capital allocation and geographic priorities the way Postmasters-General used to do. Parliament had decided that governments made lousy decisions about those kinds of things.

At least, they weren’t supposed to be pouring over these things the way Postmasters-General used to do. The truth was they still did quite a lot of it. The Coalition government crawled all over Telstra’s timetable for shutting down its analogue mobile phone network and applied immense pressure on its plans to build and later close a CDMA network. In his bookWired Brown Land?, Paul Fletcher, chief of staff to long-term Howard government communications minister Richard Alston and now the Liberal member for Bradfield on Sydney’s north shore, says Ziggy Switkowski was not even on the shortlist of candidates for CEO until Alston insisted he be there. This was at a time when Howard and Alston were pushing their reluctant backbench to support privatisation. The government, they said, had no business controlling a telecommunications company.

But out in the new marketplace, the cable TV and eventually broadband network built in the mid 1990s by the new wholly private telco, Optus, didn’t work very well. The still-public Telstra proved more nimble and ruthless than some expected, building a similar network down many of the same streets. Both companies had to write off billions of dollars. It seemed telcos in commercial markets, even privately owned ones, could make lousy decisions too. Optus’s subsequent caution about investment in fixed-line networks and the curiously widespread, renewed enthusiasm for monopoly is the deep legacy of that time.

The government’s response has been to get back to controlling a telecommunications company. It is not the vertically integrated Telstra, it’s the wholesale-only NBN Co. McKinsey/KPMG’s Implementation Studycontains a set of recommendations that are not yet government policy, but it tells us a great deal about this new, old world.

We have a good idea – the best yet – about how much it might cost. We have lots of data and discussion about what it might earn in revenue. We have an argument about “viability,” but this is really an argument about whether the now fairly well-articulated financial returns that can be expected from the project are justified by the economic and social benefits that might not be captured by the financial modelling.

This is where faith and politics take over.

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