We lag in broadband — how much is arguable — but we are no South Korea or Japan. Those countries lie at the top of the broadband waterfall. Australia lies in the wake. It is the most emotive picture in Australian politics.
But does it matter? What are we really missing out on? Do we need to spend billions of dollars of government money or allow Telstra a right to charge high prices to find out?
Perhaps. Government action is needed if Australia is missing out on valuable social goods — say, in education or health — or their businesses are losing their competitive advantage. It is not needed if the main applications are in entertainment — gaming or video downloads. Consumers might want it, but that doesn’t mean the taxpayer should fund it.
And how do we tell? Well, fortunately, other countries have spent the money to find out. All we need do is look at what they really have to see what we are missing out on and then we can decide if we need to follow. And when you look to South Korea and Japan, it is overwhelming that they are using it for entertainment and gaming; right on the private end of the spectrum.
And what about the business side? There is a real difference between hooking up every household and even establishment in Australia and ensuring that high-speed connectivity is available somewhere for businesses that really need it. If you are an export-oriented, creative design firm and you happen to not have that connectivity where you currently are, you need to move to it. Requiring the Government to hook every location up on the off-chance your business might need it is foolish. Australia has the capabilities to compete on this front. Its capital city CBDs have world-class broadband. The Star Wars movies were shot in Sydney with George Lucas sitting in Marin county. Our current infrastructure permitted that. Would wiring the whole country add much extra?
So, we should take advantage of the fact that others have spent big to be first and see whether catching up to them with a similar public investment is really worth it. The key political question is whether, once we know when and why we need high-speed broadband, we will get it when the decision is still controlled by a single entity, Telstra.