The National Broadband Network (NBN) is a "visionary" project and Australia should be congratulated, according to the author of a history of large-scale communications technologies. The challenge will be in the execution, he said.
"I think it's a daring and fantastic plan, and yes, if it works out the way it's supposed to I think it'll be fantastic and will set a model for the rest of the world," said Tim Wu, US-based telecommunications policy advocate and author of The Master Switch: The rise and fall of information empires. "I think the countries that go forward with these kinds of things are going to have the advantage in the 21st century."
"It'll make Australia famous for something other than your athletes and Ned Kelly," he said.
Speaking on this week's Patch Monday podcast, Wu dismissed concerns that spending billions of government dollars on a centrally controlled network went against free market principles and was out of proportion with US spending.
"Give me a break! You see America, it's all talk here, because I mean how many hundreds of billions does the American Government spend on roads? The military infrastructure built by the United States is massive. The truth is, the United States spends enormous monies on public infrastructure. They just spend it in ways that are different from other countries, and spend comparatively little on communications for reasons that are completely mysterious to me," he said.
Wu believes the success of the NBN will depend on the enthusiasm and competence of the people involved.
"A government-run centralised network, whatever, can be fantastic if the people running it are fantastic... A private network can be fantastic if the company running it is any good. If the company running it is an incompetent monopolist who has no interest in the internet it's going to be terrible."
Wu said one reason broadband had been slow to take off in the US was that the companies involved "really aren't into it".
"Cable companies are about television. Phone companies, they didn't like the internet, it kind of came out of nowhere. And so they're not native-born internet companies, they're sort of begrudgingly doing this because it's a certain alternative service and they're always a little nervous it'll take over in a way they won't control," said Wu. "It actually has taken over."
Tim Wu is speaking at the Digital Directions 2011 conference in Sydney on 3 March.