Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce No fast broadband? Blame John Howard

No fast broadband? Blame John Howard

Ever since the Internet became the focus of business and the need for higher speeds arose, there has been one period in Australia when it was possible to build a fast broadband network without going into debt.

That period was during the 11 years when John Howard was prime minister, the period from 1996 to 2007, when the resources boom brought in nearly half a trillion dollars extra into the national kitty.

The country was crying out for infrastructure and the money was available. But apart from not building fast broadband, Howard did not bother about any other infrastructure needs either. His treasurer, Peter Costello, paid off the existing government debt and never stopped crowing about it.

But that was about it. Most of the remaining money was used to buy votes over and over again, to keep Howard in power. There was the baby bonus, paid out at a time when Howard was quietly bringing in migrants by the score to keep the housing lobby happy and we didn't really need any more people to boost the population.

There was the health insurance benefit, paid to help private health insurance companies and tilt the country towards the US model as far as possible. There was the cut in petrol excise, and a more naked vote-buying exercise I have yet to see.

But no airport train service in the cities that needed one. No fast-rail projects. No roads in areas that badly needed them. And, above all, no fast broadband network that would have helped Australians no end in starting businesses that could help in the transition from mining that we now have to make.

There was a fear in Coalition circles that any moves towards building a fast broadband network would annoy the media moguls Rupert Murdoch and the late Kerry Packer. Anyone was able to see that television would ultimately make its way to the internet, given the lower transmission costs involved. But for this, one needed broad pipes and only the government could provide that.

So Howard balked and the country suffered as a result.

When Labor returned to power in 2007, Kevin Rudd ran headlong into the global financial crisis. Money from resources dried up and it was a time for not spending up big. But work on a fast broadband network was begun in 2009 as it had been a point of difference in the election campaigns of 2007.

After that, the story is recent and everyone knows it. Labor had a model of fibre to the premises which it said would cost $43 billion. With wires already in the ground, the Coalition had to devise a broadband policy in 2013 and they came up with a cheaper option which featured mixed technology.

We all know how that is going. It has become a political issue, technology be damned.

Today, the question of cheaper is gone. The Coalition's current budgeted spend is $56 billion. Take-up has reached a million, but people are finding that the higher speed options are too expensive.

That will change when the rollout crosses the more developed suburbs and the cities. Businesses could do with more speed at lower costs than what they pay now to private providers.

The tragedy of this whole story is that we could have had fast broadband, fibre to the premises, and much, much sooner. That would have been Howard's legacy and it would have been a great way to be remembered.

Instead, we have festering copper in the ground and more new copper is being added to the mix. We have politicians who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. What should be an essential utility like water, electricity and gas is treated like something exotic.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world moves on. Australis is slowly falling behind even what is referred to as the third world. It didn't have to be so.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.