Monday, August 03, 2009

The IPA attacks the NBN

Chris Berg from the IPA is a protagonist in the telecommunications space who is at least well meaning and intelligent, even though he is seriously misguided by an incredibly naive belief in how markets work and indeed why we might favour markets over government or vice versa.

Today he has an op ed piece in the SMH criticising the NBN.

He is right to note that the grand $43B plan is already behind schedule, but is the delay a negative given that the Government is just making sure it gets as much right as it can? The claim the business case is flawed is different. It rests on the analysis of an economist who, like everyone else, has had to make a series of assumptions.

However, Berg then tries to suggest that attacking the NBN plan for being undercooked results in charges of "Luddism". Well, not really, the charge of Luddism is only levelled at people who claim we don't in the future require broadband everywhere and at higher speeds than currently available. He is unfortunately right that many of the NBN's promoters use incredibly naive examples and over-worked cases of e-health and e-education.

But what he underestimates is the difference that occurs with ubiquity. Everyone who talks about penetration rates conveniently ignores that there are large chunks of our cities without any terrestrial broadband because coppoer runs are too long or because of active devices.

As for Berg's stupid sign off - tax cuts do not necessarily increase productivity. And in fact Government does spend a lot on sunshine (environmental control of pollution), flowers (botanical gardens) and walks along beaches (beach cleaning, beach access).

That said, the kind of people who would label Berg a Luddite include Paul Budde, a person usually referred to as an "industry commentator" but technically he runs a large research firm that writes largely unintelligible and often speculative reports on the telco industry around the world. He has recently blogged about the need for a "rethink" of telco regulation. The blog was big on sweeping generalisations and vague criticisms of the past, but desperately short on practical ideas about how regulation should change.

Indeed the posts biggest single failing was to repeat the naive belief that simply creating a separated open access network removes regulatory issues - ignoring that the old Telecom network was separated from content provision but still created a nightmare for content providers. The reasons are twfold. The first is that it is market power in a stage of production that creates the opportunity and incentive to prioce above cost - being vertically integrated just makes both the opportunity and incentive slightly greater. The second is that the person with market power always feels threatened by change in the market structure - as will NBNCo if they see some new downstream development that has the same implication for them as - say - the replacement of ISDN with IP. An example could well be in what happens as mobile networks get better at integrating the mobile device with the broadband to the home - depending on the NBNCo business model. (Example, all networks cost is built around managing peak load - if the mobile operators take the off peak broadband traffic at home that makes the fixed line peak look bigger).

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