I was recently reminded of an old uni favourite album,
Ed Haynes Sings Ed Haynes, which features 11 senseless,
sometimes offensive, but always very clever songs.
You can't buy it in stores anymore, you can't get it through
the iTunes Music Store, and online scalpers are charging up to
US$90 for what has become an extremely collectible CD. But I
remember the lyrics, 17 years later — especially to the lovingly
titled "I Want To Kill Everybody", which starts like this:
Well you get a vote in the Senate, you get a vote in the House
Then the President makes a speech
A committee decides, which committee decides
Which committee decides, which committee
As my inbox filled with one pronouncement after another from
Senator Stephen Conroy recently, I couldn't help but think of Ed.
There was the $1m
digital TV survey to find out just who can't receive strong
digital TV signals (email them if
you want to be included); the $4.8m
Digital Tracker research program; a
community consultation program on the future of the ABC and
SBS; and that's just over the past month.
Now, getting good information to track technology roll outs is
important, so perhaps we can allow him this bit of
committee-philia. However, Conroy has his work cut out for him
after two far more significant reports were handed down: the
Australian Industry Group/Deloitte CEO
survey High Speed to Broadband: Measuring industry demand for
a world class service, and the final
report of the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review
In a government where the committee is the basic operational
unit, these reviews provide more than enough food for thought. And,
if you can't be bothered reading their reports from beginning to
end, let me summarise.
The AIG survey found that businesses think broadband (and, by
extension, the NBN) is a great idea, with 93 per cent saying it has a
positive impact on their efficiency and productivity. Fully 73.5 per cent
would upgrade to faster broadband if it were available, but just
one quarter of respondents would pay a premium for it. Most don't
want to do anything differently, just faster (90.5 per cent saw the NBN's
key benefit as being faster file downloads). Oh, and regional
companies are a little bit more eager to upgrade than their city
Now, on to the RTIRC. After months of enquiry and a travel
itinerary straight out of the Telstra
Kombi commercial, the committee reached a dire but hardly
surprising conclusion: regional telecommunications suck.
They may have put it more diplomatically, but the report
identified a slew of major shortcomings.
- On mobiles: Telstra's CDMA-Next-G switch-over "was a
significant issue"; "a lack of infrastructure competition exposes
regional Australians to substantial risks that are not faced by
people in urban Australia"; "in our view, mobile
telecommunications services are not equitably available in many
parts of regional Australia".
- On broadband: despite the success of
the Australian Broadband Guarantee program, "we consider that
broadband services remain inadequate in that there is no ongoing
assurance of access to broadband services on an equitable basis".
- On voice: "there are concerns regarding service restoration
following faults, and the relative lack of competition".
backhaul: "some providers that are willing to service the local
access needs of a community are unable to do so because backhaul
prices inhibit competition for retail services. Providers do not
have access to sufficient information about aggregate demand ... the
Australian Government does not have readily available information
on where or how much backhaul transmission is available. This makes
it difficult for network builders to effectively plan backhaul
Targeting the dog's breakfast of policy governing
regional telecommunications, the RTIRC has recommended a completely
new oversight regime, which it calls the "Communications Services
Standard" (CSS), to "provide both industry and consumers with a
secure footing for their investments and expectations."
Senator Conroy now has until early March to respond to the
report, including its 45 individual recommendations; he has $400m
to spend on what is basically going to form the policy umbrella for
the NBN's regional roll out.
This is all well and good, but I might point out that this
isn't the first rural communications review; a similar study was
undertaken in 2002 and is
still available online for your amusement.
- On mobiles: "government programs are sufficiently locked-in,
through contractual arrangements, to provide a high degree of
assurance of service adequacy in this service area in regional,
rural and remote Australia."
- On Telstra's network: "concerns
have been raised about the reliability of Telstra's telephone
network, and the speed of available internet services, in regional,
rural and remote areas... The Government's Network Reliability
Framework, strengthened according to Recommendation 2.9 in this
report, should deliver adequate services."
- On broadband: "the
Inquiry has noted particularly the growing priority, expressed in
submissions, for equitable access in regional, rural and remote
Australia to higher bandwidth services ... strong government support ...
would resolve much of the concern in regional Australia about slow
- And the kicker: "the Inquiry is confident that
arrangements have been put in place over the past five years,
together with commercial developments, and the Inquiry's further
recommendations, will create an environment into the future where
regional, rural and remote Australians will be able to benefit
fully from advances in telecommunications technology and
The last commission (which, by the way, was following
on from another enquiry in 2000) was confident the problem would be
solved. Yet here we are — 6 November marks the six-year anniversary
of that report — waiting for Senator Conroy to decide what steps to
take to resolve issues the RTIRC has identified — like the
committee before it did. And the one before that.
Haynes' song was about hypocritical, warmongering governments,
but his premise applies here as well. Will RTIRC make a real
difference, or linger as simply yet another ineffectual review
guiding limp and ineffectual efforts to improve regional services?
Conroy will be under pressure to break with the government's
legacy of ineffectuality, but for now we could all benefit from a
healthy dose of scepticism.
Are you struggling on in regional areas? Has the RTIRC addressed
the problems you're having? Is the continued lack of improvement a
fault of Telstra, a fault of policy or a fault of government