CEOs, Libs still perplexed on govt NBN role

Impatient Australians have long complained that the NBN will take years to deliver, but the latest wave of anti-government posturing goes even further by blaming the Gillard Government for failing to teach them what to do with fast broadband.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Truth be told, I'd really like a panda. And I want Julia Gillard to buy it for me. Not personally, of course. But her government could certainly afford it.


Eats, shoots and leaves: since everybody's hanging silly NBN demands on the government, I'd like a panda. (Pandas eating bamboo image by Asiir, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Think I'm being foolish? In the wake of several recent publications proving many people still don't understand what the government is or should be doing with the NBN — I'd say my panda inquiry is no more ridiculous than the other, more serious proposals being floated about.

Consider Ted Baillieu's Victorian Liberals, who have long struggled with the balance between party-line NBN slamming and gratefully welcoming the NBN. Gordon Rich-Phillips, the Liberal technology minister who in November put in a polite albeit visibly uncomfortable appearance welcoming NBN Co's Network Operations and Test Facility (NOTF) to Melbourne's Docklands, spent part of his weekend announcing the Victorian Government's submission to the Commonwealth Government's Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee (RTIRC).

Among the highlights of Victoria's submission is its recommendation that the Commonwealth Government "develop a high-quality broadband roll-out strategy".

Yes, seriously.

Dear Baillieu government: I know you're trying to pretend like the Labor-led NBN is being foisted on all Victorians and is just woefully inadequate anyways, but submitting an official document with a recommendation like this actually makes it look like you're just not paying attention. Because if you were listening to the teacher instead of dreamily staring out the window, you would realise that all of these broad and bland motherhood statements can't hide the fact that the government clearly developed and outlined a strategy for high-quality broadband several years ago — and is executing it at this very moment.

All of these broad and bland motherhood statements can't hide the fact that the government clearly developed and outlined a strategy for high-quality broadband several years ago — and is executing it at this very moment.

Yes: love it or hate it, the NBN is well underway, in Victoria and elsewhere. Yet Rather than constructively critiquing it, Rich-Phillips has decided to play the fool. Suggesting the government set about developing a broadband strategy is about as insightful as suggesting zoos are failing to reverse pandas' abominable birth rate because they're showing them the wrong kind of panda porn: it's an iffy suggestion and hardly likely to address the real issues at hand.

Like pandas, of course, Liberals love to clutch at straws — bamboo ones — and have an aversion to public sex. As anybody who's endured a Tony Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull press conference would know, they also resemble that famous joke about pandas: eats, shoots and leaves. But not even the pandas would be able to explain Rich-Phillips' second recommendation: that the government "improves mobile phone coverage".

This is a lovely and bland motherhood statement, but its practice would require industry interference in ways that seem to contradict the Liberals' own penchant against intervening in private enterprise's affairs. After all, building mobile towers is the job of carriers, not of governments; heck, the government (through NBN Co) is having enough trouble building its own wireless towers. What might have been more helpful from the state government is a promise to help work with planning authorities to fast-track the necessary dialogue between landowners, neighbouring residents and NBN Co so that necessary towers can be installed somewhere everybody's happy about — and quickly.

Equally confused about the nature of the NBN and the government's role is the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples (NCAFP), which in its RTIRC submission has pleaded for the NBN to be fast-tracked in remote areas.

It's an interesting perspective not only because it chooses as a primary use case the ability for jailed Aborigines in juvenile detention centres to communicate with far-away family — turning fibre to the premise into "fibre to the penitentiary" — but because it completely ignores the fact that Australia's most remote areas have in fact already been prioritised for the NBN roll-out.

They will never see NBN fibre, of course — but they are already being serviced with 6Mbps broadband through NBN Co's interim satellite broadband service (which, by the way, is also available across Victoria). Just as Rich-Phillips seems to be trying to forget completely about the NBN, the NCAFP seems to have ignored the fact that the areas for which its advocating can already get access to better communications.

No, its responsibility — and not the government's — is figuring out what to do with it. This is the hardest part, but it's also the one area where the government's responsibility only goes so far.

Not everybody agrees. Indeed, there seems to be a whole country full of NBN-ignorant types who are not only failing to register the actual state of the NBN, but are angry that the government still hasn't convinced them of the things they should be doing with it when it arrives.

And these aren't just the spittle-flecked, wild-eyed ranting loonies that swear the government is using the NBN to infiltrate our kitchens and spy on us in the showers; in fact, a recent survey suggested many of the Australians who are most confused about the NBN are the ones running our biggest companies.

The Australian Industry Group's survey of 540 CEOs nationwide found that just 55 per cent of CEOs considered their businesses ready for the NBN — down from 80 per cent in 2008 — and that nearly seven out of 10 had almost no idea what faster broadband would mean for their businesses.

Naturally, they blame the government. And why not? We already blame Julia Gillard and her cronies for everything else that's happening in the country; why should they not also be responsible for telling our business leaders how to use the cutting-edge broadband they're getting for basically zilch? Just how much hand-holding do we need?

If a CEO can't figure out without assistance how better communications would improve his business, I suggest that they should perhaps not be CEO.

I can understand your average homeowner needing some guidance to understand the NBN and its benefits, but why in the world are business leaders not understanding this stuff? It's hardly the first time communications has been a business issue.

After all, they are being paid considerable salaries to do the right thing for their business — and part of that task involves tapping into new technologies to help those businesses grow. If a CEO can't figure out without assistance how better communications would improve his business — even if that means running through a rigorous analysis and definitively concluding that it offers no benefit — I suggest that they should perhaps not be CEO.

If you think I'm being harsh, ask yourself: would the same leeway be extended to the CEO of a mining company that could not figure out the benefit of investing in larger tunnel drills or building more-efficient ore processing sites? Or a hospital CEO that couldn't appreciate the potential benefits of an electronic healthcare record? Or a retail CEO that stubbornly refused to concede that online commerce was a real and growing shopping trend that threatened his business?

Survival is all about adaptation, and the NBN is one of the biggest free kicks for businesses since the GST. If business leaders can't figure out how it will help them, what they need is not more education from the government; what they need is an early retirement and replacement with someone who can offer real vision for their business.

The extent to which special-interest groups seem ready to blast the government's lack of education around the NBN is nearly as amazing as the Victorian Liberals' determination to rewrite history by painting themselves as the progenitors of some great, imaginary broadband plan that's even better than the NBN. This sort of position echoes Malcolm Turnbull's blind insistence that the NBN is bad just because — you know — it's bad.

The communications gap between rural and regional Australians has been around for over 200 years and the government's broadly inclusive NBN is the first chance ever for every Australian to be given access to the same services. What these and other critics are failing to realise is that while the government is rightly providing better communications, it is not really obligated to tell business and community leaders what to do with them.

That's the part that requires creativity and thinking — and, in the long term, will sort out the visionaries from the bludgers. Much as with the pandas, those that fail to get busy in time, will find themselves the last members of a dying breed.

What do you think? Is it the government's responsibility to teach business and community leaders what to do with the NBN? Or should they take initiative for their own use of it?

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