commentary In choosing a media-hardened executive as interim director of the NBN Company and the first appointment to a board that will be finalised within weeks, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has put heft behind his argument that the NBN will not only drive new forms of content, but will potentially become a significant force in reshaping Australia's online content market.
(Credit: Future Exploration Network)
As someone who has headed Australia's most enduring old media/new media partnership, Martin Hoffman certainly should know his way around Australia's content markets.
Hoffman quadrupled ninemsn's revenues during his three-year tenure before leaving to spend nearly two years with social networking firm Loop Mobile. In coordinating between no less than Microsoft and the Nine Network, Hoffman has worked both sides of the fence and has the chops to build and maintain relationships between the government's NBN infrastructure and the content providers that will be amongst its beneficiaries.
Hoffman's latest position, as policy coordinator within the department of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, has given him the chance to re-frame those private sector skills within the structure and governance demands of massive public sector projects. He has enjoyed a box seat during the development of NBN policy, and will bring essential vision necessary to help NBN Co bring its carriage services to the ventures that will utilise them.
In choosing an ex-media executive as the first new appointment to the company, Conroy is sending a strong signal about the role he expects the NBN to play as the project slowly lifts its lumbering frame off the ground and starts to move ahead. This could have significant implications on everything from online government, learning, and small-business initiatives — all priorities Conroy mentioned in this week's speech outlining his vision for Australia's future digital economy — to the NBN's potential commercial applications in areas such as the media and broadcasting industry.
This industry faces significant challenges as ubiquitous access to swathes of bandwidth offers the potential to shift the balance of power away from today's free-to-air and pay TV networks. Fat pipes directly into consumers' homes offer unprecedented new opportunities to break the stranglehold of today's geographically-constrained and top-heavy broadcast markets with new IP-based content and services — but actually delivering these services is going to require some policy tweaking and team-building as it threatens some very well-established ecosystems.
Hoffman's position on the board will ensure that the NBN Co can engage with the content industry in a meaningful way
Fully aware of the political pressures he faces in making the NBN work as expected — and justify its cost — Conroy has been heavily preoccupied with delineating viable business cases for the services it will enable. It's hard to ignore the potential for broadcasters to utilise the network, which will expand on the current pay-TV footprint of around 2.5 million cabled homes. With a bit over half of those currently buying the services, an NBN reaching nearly 10 million homes might become a cable alternative for around 6 million Australian households.
The content possibilities posed by such an infrastructure are significant indeed, and Hoffman's position on the board will ensure that the NBN Co can engage with the content industry in a meaningful way. Given this and the many other content-related possibilities for the NBN, it makes sense for Conroy to kick off the NBN Co board with someone who knows the ropes in this area.
Yet steering markets towards the NBN is only one benefit of having someone of Hoffman's pedigree on the board: a deep understanding of the dynamics and economics of online content will be essential for nearly every part of Conroy's NBN vision. Rather than filling the board with telecoms industry people, Conroy is clearly determined to bring a range of opinions to the table.
Telecoms experience seems almost mandatory for inclusion on the NBN Co board — but if Hoffman's appointment is any guide, that experience may well be complemented with expertise in a range of other key industries — including healthcare, government, education, utilities and financial services.
By reaching out across Australian industry, Conroy may well lay the groundwork for an engaging, and hopefully effective, multidisciplinary NBN Co with a solid direction into his digital future.