If someone gave you AU$93.5 million to spend, would you forget it?
I wouldn't either. But this is exactly what seems to have happened in the aftermath of the 2007/8 federal budget, which was widely lambasted by many observers -- including yours truly -- for its lack of funding for meaningful ICT related initiatives.
The budget wrap-up release from Senator Helen Coonan, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, touted budget highlights including AU$10.5 million to promote digital radio, AU$282.9 million to promote film production, and AU$4.6 million for an expansion of the Australian Ballet School.
Nowhere, however, did the release mention that the government had earmarked AU$93.5 million to establish a new broadband blackspots program, which will provide significant subsidies to rural Australians to whom provision of broadband will cost more than AU$2,500 over three years.
It's right there, buried in the Expense Measures section of the detailed Budget Paper No. 2. This money, the budget says, is "to provide subsidised Internet access for Australians currently unable to gain a metropolitan-comparable level of broadband service at their principal place of residence or small business".
Call me daft, but that sounds like a significant ICT related initiative. Ninety-three million broadband related dollars, but they didn't even rate a mention on Senator Coonan's budget highlights press release.
DCITA has proved itself more than willing to bag Labor's proposed communications policies and crow over its own, so you'd think the department wouldn't miss the opportunity to harp on the allocation of what is a pretty substantial amount of cash -- especially when even a first-year spin doctor would have known the hungry media would be looking for explicit statements on broadband policy.
How could this be? Is DCITA trying to keep this funding low-profile? Did they not bother to read the budget themselves? Did they just forget to mention it?
Curiosity piqued, I rang Senator Coonan's office to find out why Adelaide Oval renovations get more column centimetres than AU$93.5 million in broadband funding. My enquiry to the senator's press secretary elicited two surprising words: "I'm sorry?"
Thinking my mobile was going through a blackspot of its own, I slowly repeated the words "broadband blackspot program". The problem was not the connection, however: she honestly had no idea what I was talking about. She did eventually manage to find someone who did.
The blackspots program, it turns out, was launched back in March as part of the government's AU$162.5 million Australian Broadband Guarantee program, which is currently being implemented as the successor to Broadband Connect, which itself replaced the previous HiBIS (Higher Bandwidth Incentive Scheme). At the same time, DCITA is also administering its Broadband Blueprint, Connect Australia, Clever Networks, Mobile Connect, and other schemes.
Pay attention! There will be a test on this later.
Each of these programs involves manpower, budget allocations, and the need to monitor and tweak performance. The need for this last aspect was painfully shown last week when a report by the Australian National Audit Office showed that lax monitoring by DCITA's six assigned auditors had allowed rural ISPs to rort between AU$10 million and AU$12.6 million from HiBIS. Apparently, the administrative weight of 7000 claims per month proved too much for DCITA, which eventually added 24 more staff in an attempt to cope.
Could this scandal have muted DCITA's enthusiasm to remind Australia's broadband-hungry public about how much it's doing to improve broadband? Is DCITA concerned that too many people will find out about the blackspots program and it will end up with another unmanageable mess on its hands? Is DCITA simply too overextended to keep track of its own initiatives?
The spokesperson I did end up reaching conceded that educating consumers about a range of initiatives can be difficult -- but in an election year, conciliatory tones and seeming inaction are hardly going to do the trick. This year, the rules are simple: money talks, and political understatement walks.
If only because of Labor's promise to drop billions to broadband-enable the entire country, this particular piece of infrastructure is going to be an election issue of some sort. DCITA clearly needs to promote and explain its broadband efforts to date. If, however, it continues glossing over major new funding initiatives and failing to explain benefits delivered from previous programs -- well, who can blame the world for thinking it just doesn't know what it's doing?