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Pollies fail to grasp key IT issues

An analysis by representatives of Australia's two largest IT industry groups shows that neither political party in the federal election has come up with a comprehensive policy around technology.

An analysis by representatives of Australia's two largest IT industry groups shows that neither political party in the federal election has come up with a comprehensive policy around technology.

The 2007 federal election, in the eyes of many pundits, is the first in which technology has proved a crucial issue for both parties.

The ALP in particular has gone to great efforts to highlight the links between national technology investment and national wellbeing, and has attempted to appeal to the younger voter using the Web as a key tool.

But according to key IT industry groups the Australian Computer Society (ACS) and the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), neither of the two major parties has come up with a comprehensive policy that covers the three areas of most pressing need from a technology industry standpoint.

Australia needs national broadband infrastructure, a solution to the "digital divide", and to encourage investment in ICT innovation.

ZDNet Australia looks at each of these issues in the lead up to the poll.

Broadband: National Infrastructure
At the start of the campaign, Labor communications spokesperson Stephen Conroy said that just as building national infrastructure once meant building railroads, today it's about building out broadband networks.

Both parties have used the building of a national network as a key policy.

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The government already recognised the need for this infrastructure in its last term, announcing two initiatives to build out faster networks in both metropolitan and regional Australia.

The government promises that if re-elected it will provide high-speed broadband to 99 percent of the Australian population at affordable prices -- between AU$35 and AU$60 a month. The remaining one percent will be given up to AU$2750 as a contribution towards the purchase of satellite Internet services.

High on the government's agenda is the building out of infrastructure for regional and rural Australia. Telecommunications needs in regional and rural Australia were once served by the government, but these areas have become less economical to serve under a privatised Telstra.

To meet these needs, the Government released a tender for a new regional network, won by the Optus/Elders joint venture OPEL in June. The government and OPEL will invest around AU$1 billion each to rollout a wireless network based on the controversial but highly promising WiMax standard.

Still unresolved, however, is the second part of the government's network strategy -- a metropolitan network that is widely expected to be fibre-based. Applications for the build-out of this network are to be considered by a broadband committee that conveniently won't make a final decision until after the election.

The ALP, in response to the government's measures, has promised that if elected it will build a AU$4.7 billion national fibre-to-the-node network in partnership with the private sector, funded by the Future Fund and the remaining share in Telstra.

Both of the parties' strategies have predominantly been discussed in relation to lingering issues over the market power of Telstra.

But both Professor Reg Coutts, director of the ACS's telecommunications board, and Sheryle Moon, CEO of the AIIA, have called on both parties to quit politicising the broadband issue and solve Australia's infrastructure woes in a bi-partisan way.

"It would be wonderful if both sides recognised that broadband investment is key infrastructure, a nation-building exercise, and that it should be a bi-partisan issue," Coutts said.

Moon blasted both parties for "squabbling over the details of the technology, when what we really need is for both parties to sit down with industry stakeholders and work out a plan of action to move forward now."

The AIIA CEO called on both parties to "end their posturing on broadband and deliver some concrete information".

Coutts said evaluating the broadband infrastructure policies of either party is difficult, as neither is complete.

He is, however, openly critical of the regional plan set in motion by the current government.

Coutts says that the current OPEL plan "lacks credibility."

"The coverage maps issued by the government are disingenuous verging on misleading," he said. Coutts said the "continuous coverage" denoted on these maps are not feasible in practice.

"The maps of Victoria, for example, indicate that the whole of the state would be covered," he said. "If it was that easy, we would have continuous coverage for our mobiles in those areas. And 5.8GHz is far more difficult than mobile phone frequency range. I don't know how stupid they think we are."

The ALP's projected coverage maps for the OPEL venture, he added, while "at least based on more realistic assumptions", is almost as dubious. "Even they might be optimistic," he said.

Both parties have accused each other of providing incorrect or misleading information when detailing their versions of these maps.

As for the stalled plans for a metropolitan network, Coutts considers the ALP's blueprint to be "more extensive" than what the government has in mind. But he admits that comparing their plans on an apples for apples basis is difficult.

He believes that the government needs to reconsider its policy of not investing taxpayer's money into the metropolitan network.

"To see broadband rolled out adequately, we need a public-private partnership," he said. "We as taxpayers in collaboration with the private sector needs to invest in it."

Details are also scant, he said, as to how the government will ensure an "open access regime" to this network. Coutts said both parties need to re-visit the ways in which the nation maintains competition -- particularly the need to address the proposed organisational separation of Telstra.

Bridging the "Digital Divide"
The lack of national broadband infrastructure only goes part of the way to explaining why a great number of Australians lack the access, skills or resources required to take part in the digital economy.

The ALP has made the digital divide the centrepiece of its "education revolution" policy, promising a AU$1 billion fund to give every senior secondary school student in years 9 to 12 access to a computer at school.

Labor has also announced a tax rebate for low-income families with a household income up to AU$100,000 to claim on the purchase of a new laptop, broadband connection or printer.

The Coalition has also discussed computers in schools, but the crux of its education campaigning has been around early childhood literacy, an equally important but marginally related issue.

Coutts says both parties need to properly address the "digital divide" and see it as an issue that goes beyond computers in schools.

The Universal Service Obligation (USO), he said, is an example of another area of government policy which needs to be reviewed to reduce the gap between the technology-skilled and technology-poor.

"The view we have expressed is that the USO is a very important safeguard for the provision of telecommunication services to those areas for which its provision is uneconomical," Coutts said.

"The definition of the USO, however, needs to be broadened to bring it into the 21st century. The USO is currently stuck. It's five or 10 years out of date. It shouldn't just be about the standard telephone anymore, but about mobile services, broadband data and even Voice over IP."

Coutts said a recently announced review of the USO needs to achieve more than the last one did in 2004.

"Some form of government intervention is required to address a divide that is getting wider," he concluded. "These initiatives need to be integrated with addressing the digital divide as a policy. Both sides are throwing things in the air at the moment. Neither party has addressed this."

An investment in innovation
Both Coutts and Moon accuse the major parties of neglecting the need to encourage investment in ICT innovation.

Moon said that both parties recognise that investments in science and technology lead to innovation. "Yet neither party has come out with policies to promote it," she said.

"What needs to be discussed is that innovation is one of the key engines of economic growth," Coutts concurred.

Moon contrasted Australia's skills shortage with the United States' America Competes Bill, which puts money into innovation and university places to encourage young Americans to pursue degrees that will leverage the knowledge economy."

The approach of the current government has been to let the business community lead R&D innovation, rather than through public institutions.

During its stay in power, the Coalition has invested AU$8.3 billion into its industry-focused Backing Australia's Ability scheme, which it claims has led to business expenditure in R&D peaking to AU$10.1 billion in 2005/06, its highest level ever as a proportion of national GDP. In May, the government offered to add a further AU$1.4 billion to the scheme.

But Coutts decries the government's R&D record, angry that it refused to return the R&D incentive from its current rate of 125 percent to its former level of 150 percent.

"We had discussions with the current government about the R&D tax incentive, but it came to nothing," he said. "I would be interested to see whether the ALP goes back to 150 percent. Both parties are very silent on this."

Moon said that the ICT sector is responsible for between half and three quarters of all productivity growth in Australia. She is disappointed that the industry had not been given greater consideration in the lead up to the election.

"Neither party is giving our sector cause for optimism. They have had years to formulate policy and yet appear to be hamstrung by one issue while neglecting the rest," she said.

ZDNet Australia's Marcus Browne contributed to this story.