In 2006, I wrote a paper entitled Broadband Technologies, Techno-Optimism and the “Hopeful” Citizen which attempted to make sense of the marketing of broadband (both commercial and governmental) in light of the international competitiveness argument – that Australia was ‘falling behind’. Of course, by 2012, we have falled behind in this competition – something which the NBN is going to try and fix, we are told.
I remain a firm supporter of the NBN, for its capacity to create a bedrock of functional (that is technological) connectivity in Australia (for example, my discussion with the ABC in 2010). Of course it will not make much difference to our lives if we don’t find ways of using this “connective infrastructure” (as Park, Middleton, Liu and I are calling it). Moreover, there continues to be gap between our investment (both emotional and financial) in the NBN and our recognition of its applications, uses and potentials. This gap is widened everytime the NBN, like most public policy matters these days, is kicked around by the competing political forces in the current parliament.
I will explore some of these themes again in an up-coming symposium in Canberra (October 9, 2012), organised by Associate Professor Sora Park (University of Canberra), entitled Converging on an NBN Future: Content, Connectivity, and Control. You can find out more about this event, and register (free) at http://broadbandandsociety.eventbrite.com.au/. There’s more information in :NBN Symposium brochure
My contribution will be a short paper – Selling the NBN: The politics of broadband in Australia
It is nearly 20 years since the report of the Broadband Services Expert Group gave the first clear sign that the Australian government was beginning to engage in public policy relating to networked-computer based services. There is still nothing like the high-speed dedicated broadband infrastructure and service supply which was enthusiastically imagined by that group (along with many similar groups in other countries from the late 1980s onwards). The ‘National Broadband Network’, evocative of these early times of optimism and future promise, slowly rolls out and will probably not be complete until the next decade. The return on this investment, while sure to come, will be many more years distant. Throughout this time, of course, broadband has grown dramatically in Australia (dependent, of course, on one’s definition of just how broad the band needs to be). There would be only a handful of the population which still dial up to connect and for many more, the concept of a ‘fixed’ high-speed service makes little sense as mobile connectivity grows even faster than traditional broadband. It would appear we have broadband and we do not, all at the same time. We also have, compared with earlier times, sharp division between models of broadband service provision, offered by both government and opposition. In this environment, selling the NBN becomes both a political and economic necessity, even as the gap between desire and access (which first motivated the NBN) shrinks. What then are the politics at work here? Why are now in doubt about something which has been promised for so long and whose announcement was first met with such acclaim?