What role for the Australian government in broadband policy?

A defining feature of the development and deployment of broadband in Australia over the past decade or so has been the three-way argument that occurs between individual proponents and supporters of broadband, the government, and Internet service providers. Though at times the positions expressed by each party to this debate shift somewhat, in broad terms, advocates complain that the government does too little to create the conditions for increased broadband access to the Internet; service providers complain that, until there is ‘content’ suited to broadband for which consumers will pay, they cannot offer faster and better services, and government declares generally that it will not become too involved in the operation of the market for broadband.

One constant question remains: what role should the government play in the development and exploitation of broadband through its policies and actions? To understand the possible answers requires, first, that we understand the relationship between the manner of the extraordinary rise in importance of the Internet in the developed world and government policy and action to promote and develop it.

The Internet is a technology understood and used in society primarily through a rhetoric of individual-user libertarianism and free-market economics. For example, in the 1990s, the formative decade for the emerging Internet, governments were often the ‘enemy’ that the Internet would defeat. The net was seen as a technology by which state authority would be evaded; and through which individuals would be empowered. Equally, it was imagined as a place where new forms of ultra-free market economic activity would emerge, unconstrained by the economic equivalent of the state, the big capitalist corporation.

The role of governments in promoting the development and exploitation of new information and communications technologies (ICTs) has therefore been complex. Let’s look back to the early 1990s when the United States government took the decision to ‘unleash’ the Internet in its nascent so that it could be primed for commercial exploitation.

At this time, there had been at least a decade’s worth of vanguard policy preparation, in the United States and also Europe, around the dramatic changes enabled by the linking of computing power with telecommunications. Then, in 1993, following Clinton’s election as President, the new administration determined to establish a national information infrastructure (NII), heavily influenced by Al Gore’s commitment to building the ‘information superhighway’.

There was significant interest in the notion of a government-controlled expansion of networked ICT in the United States to create the NII as a public service. It was generally assumed that prior developments – such as academic-oriented networking and private bulletin boards – would be ‘overtaken’ by this more organised and large-scale development and be remembered as ‘experiments’ rather than as origins.

In fact, the decision taken by the Clinton-Gore administration as a consequence of its NII investigation was to prime the pump of the existing infrastructure – the emerging, cobbled-together Internet. The US government did not invest in new national service; instead it commercialised its existing investment in academic network capacity, and protected the emerging industry from competition and taxation, allowing both infrastructure and service to grow far more quickly and more flexibly than otherwise would have happened. While legislation to regulate aspects of the Internet has emerged, it has, largely, reacted to the ‘already developed’ Internet rather than to forestall anticipated problems or ‘direct’ the Internet in certain prescribed directions.

Australia’s governmental response to the possibilities inherent in networked ICTs also began in the early 1990s, marked by the publication in 1994 of the reports The Networked Nation (ASTEC) and Networking Australia’s Future (BSEG). Despite the ‘nation-building’, ‘big government’ tone of these reports, as in the USA, Australian government action has largely been constrained by the laissez-faire approach to economic management that typifies late 20th century liberal democracies. As Jane Long and I have argued recently, in writing about censorship, Australian government policy has, largely, been promotional, focusing on creating a mood in Australia that makes it easier for people to accept and want to use the Internet. Thus, the Internet we now have in Australia emerged from the interplay of market forces largely unconstrained by – but unsupported by – government policy.

Government policy has also been highly pragmatic, supportive of its broader political requirements. Where money has been spent (in, for example, the ‘Networking the Nation’ program for rural and regional infrastructure), it has been consistent with much larger political agendas than those associated with the Internet – preparing for the privatisation of Telstra, or meeting particular constituency needs in the National Party. Certain regulatory moves have, similarly, reflected political expendiency – such as the decision to limit ‘datacasting’ services so that major media corporations would remain favourable to the ruling Coalition.

What then of the role of the government and broadband? Does it have to be this way? In South Korea – often held up as a model for ‘effective’ government policy – government action has led to massive levels of broadband access and participation. In Sweden, the government is investing heavily in basic infrastructure to link all parts of the nation at high speeds.

But in Australia, as in America, broadband remains a ‘developing’ service – barely approaching the kinds of minimum speeds necessary for genuine audio-visual interaction and not yet reliably available to every home. The most recent broadband experts’ report, published in 2003, Australia’s Broadband Connectivity repeats the tone and expectations of the 1994 report, but has not resulted in significant changes in government action or policy concerning broadband. Policy is now, basically, being made by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission – in response to Telstra’s efforts to dominate the broadband market.

In the past, the federal government’s ‘promotional’, but hands off approach produced, rapidly, a network data service that was soon accessible and affordable to most Australians; the Internet worked in Australia in the 1990s regardless of the government (which did very little to support it). As a result, the Internet emerged, unconstrained by the kind of gratuitous social ordering that a government-managed enterprise would have produced, and, largely, uncontrolled by large corporate interests.

And it is worth emphasising that government media and communications policy is heavily influenced by the needs and expectations of large media corporations. To this extent, the absence of the government from an active role in broadband policy might actually be a good thing; for active government policy on broadband would, more likely than not, reinforce the dominance of existing television, print and telephony giants. The market place might favour Telstra, Channel Nine and News Corporation: but the government’s vested interest in the primacy of these corporations makes me think that more government action might exacerbate, not ameliorate this condition.

In the end, broadband in Australia has developed rather in the manner of the dialup Internet that preceded it – adding a faster, better, and more effective form of global internetworking, rather than being enshrined as a distinct public or corporate delivery channel for data services as originally imagined in the early 1990s. This result is in everyone’s interests – except perhaps those large media corporations. Government policy has not produced this result; but those who lament a lack of ‘government action’ might ask themselves whose interests would have been served if Australia’s federal government had been more involved.

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