I spent a decade of my life trying to get debate about telecommunications policy to be wider than the question of Telstra privatisation. It was an incredibly frustrating time as the issue at hand wasn't really ownership. Unfortunately the discussion about contending NBN plans doesn't seem to be shaping up much better.
Stephen Bartholomeusz writes that the Government NBN wins on glitz alone. While Grahame Lynch gets a column he wrote for CommsDay recycled in the Oz in which he argues the industry is at fault for the coalition not "getting it".
In both these stories the picture is created that the Coalition plan is the economically sound one while the Labor plan is the one with vision. A lot of the distinction seems to hinge on the now over-worked line that there is no "cost-benefit analysis" for the NBN. In Lynch's words;
The subsequent refusal to submit the NBN policy to normal checks and balances such as a cost-benefit analysis or compliance with competitive neutrality rules fed this narrative and guaranteed that a Coalition that self-identified as a responsible economic manager would never support it - which was exactly what the government wanted as it provided a clear point of differentiation on vision that it could milk for political advantage.
It has been fascinating to see the number of commentators who have parroted the line about a cost-benefit analysis (CBA), usually with the presumption that a CBA is "normal" or "usual". I'll offer a bottle of good red to the first commentator who shows me the CBA that accompanied the Broadband Connect program that was awarded to OPEL. Indeed to claim the prize you can even show me the CBA for the sale of Telstra, the Australian Broadband Guarantee, the switch from analog to digital television, or Malcolm Turnbull's $10B Murray-Darling Basin project.
Part of the issue here is that people are confusing a CBA - which measures social benefits and social costs - with a business case or financial analysis of a project - which measures private benefits and costs. To do a good CBA you really need to be able to measure social benefits. The only purported CBA virtually discounted the willingness to pay on the grounds that compression techniques would remove the need for greater speed and discounted all network effects as being fully captured in the private willingness to pay (an error).
The letters page of this morning's SMH was filled with comments that suggested that because the writer had a good speed (ranging from 1 to 15 Gbps) they didn't need more. The sorry fact is that when they first got 128Kbps or 256Kbps they probably said the same thing.
The benefits of ubiquitous broadband include the potential to undertake remote health monitoring and greater use of distributed educational resource from the home. They also include the benefits of telework as outlined by Access Economics for the Government. But these are mostly social benefits - they aren't benefits that an individual consumer can evaluate. It is the kind of "externality" that you need Government to address.
Finally the methodology of CBA is embedded in a theory known as the compensation principle - we should do stuff if the gainers could compensate the losers. But we never do the compensation. It is really an actively anti-egalitatrian methodology. Commentators should be arguing that the Dept of Finance notes promoting CBA are what should be eliminated - not that CBAs should be done.
The real difference is as Peter Wotton summarized in Crikey;
The Liberals want to give away tons of money to a wide range of internet service providers in the hope that the market will cobble together some sort of high speed web access.
The Labor Party wants to invest a lot more money in a system which will provide state of the art access speed. Additionally at some stage this investment is to be recovered.
We appear to have a choice between Father Christmas or a sound investment in upgradable infra-structure.