Wednesday, March 30, 2011

KM in the Oz

Kevin Morgan in the Oz today tries to neatly dust off a diatribe delivered through the pages of Communications Day yesterday. He seems to forget what he battled for all those years ago at the ACTU - which was Government control and social outcomes - and to have instead thought his mission was to preserve the behemoth Telstra.

The so-called "world wide" trends Australian governments followed in our deregulation cycle started in the UK, NZ and Australia. We were in the vanguard not the cravan. Just as we are now.

The single biggest achievement of the NBN policy is the structural reform of the industry that was not completed prior to privatisation - largely due to a union backed campaign by Telstra. Conroy to his credit has pursued this single mindedly. It was the one thing Telstra under Sol demanded be dropped to secure Telstra's participation in 2008, and Conroy, unlike every Comms Minister for the last fifteen years stood up to Australia's largest totally domestic corporation and chose consumers and public interest over thuggery.

In response to his longer piece in Comms Day I have written and submitted the following.

It is disappointing that my fellow student of telco policy history Kevin Morgan is prepared to be so wrong in his recollection of the seventies – and indeed the eighties.

We can ignore little things like Telecom getting a monopoly in the “1976 Act” when the Act was 1975, the same year Telecom was formed and Telecom2000 saw the light of day. The single biggest technology change that the report missed was not the growth of wireless but the development of the PC. While it did see a broadband fibre based future it was in either a circuit switched or broadcasting mode.

In his prelude to discussing the Davidson Inquiry, Kevin writes “Telecom could no longer rely on the Budget to support investment plans”. Unfortunately he is one of the few people who I know knows that Telecom had seen no support from the Budget for anything since 1959, the year that the PMG was required to become self-funding. The entire $4.5B debt of the PMG was assumed by Telecom Australia.

He is right to note that the Hawke Government did increase the interest rate payable by Telecom on that debt. Unfortunately for his argument though the discrepancy between the 13% and 7% is entirely explained by the difference in the applicable Government Bond (or risk free capital) rates then and now.

He goes on that “As Telecom became capital constrained in the late 1980s the fibre vision waned.” The fibre vision however at that time had been extinguished by the successful lobbying by the free to air television moguls against Pay TV. Pay TV only re-emerged on the policy horizon – according to Mark Westfield’s The Gatekeepers – at the insistence of Richard Li, then still working for his father at Hutchison. He told the Minister that there was no interest in bidding for AUSSAT if they couldn’t do Pay TV.

Finally, I was left confused by the foray into laws of physics and laws of economics. Wireless isn’t “challenging the laws of physics” – it is actually conforming to them. No part of standard electromagnetic theory has yet been challenged by the development of wireless, and even the information theory of the Shannon limit isn’t even tested.

The non physical laws of relevance are Moore’s Law that the capacity of microprocessors doubles every eighteen months and Cooper’s Law that the capacity of wireless systems doubles every thirty months – wireless capacity keeps falling behind demand which is why there are ever greater demands for more spectrum. The CEO’s of the three mobile networks – Thodey, O’Sullivan and Dews – are all on the record stating that wireless networks cannot meet the bandwidth requirements of citizens.

As for the economics of monopoly, there are plenty of examples where one technology has monopoly characteristics but inter-modal competition can be sustained. We have one electricity distribution network in our suburbs, and no one suggests we duplicate it. We have in some places one gas network, and no one suggests we duplicate it. But they compete to carry energy to premises, energy that has different features and characteristics (or strengths) just as fibre and wireless do.

Kevin started his piece with the saying that if you can remember the seventies you weren’t there. The real saying though is about the sixties and is variously attributed to Grace Slick, Robin Williams and others. What does it say about me that I too have a bookcase full of reports from the era, but my copy of In the Court of the Crimson King is a CD (a girlfriend used to own the record).

NOTE I hope to have a copy of Telecom 2000 up on the DigEcon website in the next day!

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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