Copyright law in Australia isn’t as cut and dry as many believe it to be. Whilst some of our laws are in line with what the general public thinks they are (I.E. United States based) there’s a lot of things that are more draconian, like the lack of safe harbor provisions, and others that are a lot more lax like the lack of any formal infringement notification systems. This has often been cited as one of the main reasons why piracy is so rampant in Australia although that’s really only a minor part of the equation. Still this hasn’t stopped rights holders from lobbying members of our parliament into getting the laws changed and a recently leaked discussion paper, from the offices of Senator Brandis and Minister Turnbull, showcases a rather disturbing future for Australian copyright.
The discussion paper reads as a wish list of measures that rights holders would like to see implemented that would be used to curb copyright infringement behaviour within Australia, taking inspiration from similar schemes overseas. The proposed measures will be familiar to anyone who’s been involved in the copyright debate ranging from requiring ISPs to take “reasonable action” against infringing users (something our High Court has ruled against in the past), blocking websites that facilitate infringement and the measures required to support those processes. There are some potential positive questions for discussion in there, like the expansion of safe harbor provisions, but the rest of them will only cause more headaches than they will solve.
The first discussion point around ISP’s taking “reasonable steps” towards discouraging users from engaging in copyright infringement is a blatant attempt to skirt around the high court’s previous ruling that there are no such steps that an ISP can take. Essentially it comes down to a question of liability as increasing the exposure that the ISPs have make them a better target for litigation than the thousands of individuals beneath them do. The worst thing about this is that it will most certainly lead to increased costs for consumers with no benefits for anyone but the rights holders themselves. Honestly this smacks of the “mandatory voluntary” system that Conroy proposed, and then swiftly abandoned, all those years ago. If it didn’t work then I fail to see how it could work now.
The second point revolves around blocking some sites outright which they’re proposing to do at the ISP level. Now the paper doesn’t go into details about how the site would be blocked, just that injunctions could be granted, however we know that whatever method they use will end up being ineffectual. DNS blacklisting, IP blocks and all other methods that other countries have used in the past simply do not work in an environment with users with a modicum of technical experience. Heck there are dozens of browser extensions which help with this and there’s already a healthy number of Australians completely circumventing any ISP level blocking through the use of VPNs. So realistically the discussion point about what matters should be considered in granting an injunction are moot as it won’t stop the site from being available.
The last 3 points dig into what the impacts will be (both in terms of reducing infringement and the cost to business) as well as asking if there are any alternative measures that can be taken. Honestly I feel these are the points that should be front and center rather than the previous two I mentioned as this is the real crux of the copyright issue in Australia. In terms of the discussion paper though they feel like afterthoughts, each given a brief paragraph with a one liner question following them. It really looks like the other points are, essentially, already agreed to and these are just there to placate those who feel that they need to have their voice heard.
What this discussion paper completely misses is the real issue here: the lack of content systems that are on the same level available overseas. The Australian tax is no longer just catch cry, it’s a fact, and the residents of this country have voted with their wallets. Indeed the high use of Netflix within Australia shows that we’re ready, willing and able to pay for the services should rights holders be willing to provide them but instead this paper wants to focus on the stick rather than the carrot.
If Brandis and Turnbull are serious about copyright reform in Australia they should be looking into what they can do to encourage those services to come Australia rather than attempt to dissuade people from pirating their content. History has shown that the latter can never be prevented, no matter what legislation you put in or DRM you attempt to ram down the customer’s throats. The latter has a tried and true history of being successful and I have no doubts that rights holders would see similar success in Australia should they choose to bring their services here. For now though it seems like they’re still stuck in the past, trying to protect business models that are failing in the new Internet powered economy. They’ll have to come around eventually, it’s just a question of whether they do it before someone else does.
Oh wait they already are. Time to wake the fuck up.
There’s 2 main reasons why I’ve avoided writing about the NBN for the last couple months. For the most part it’s been because there’s really been nothing of note to report and sifting through hours of senate talks to find a nugget of new information to write about isn’t really something I’m particularly enthused about doing. Secondly as someone who’s deeply interested in technology (and makes his living out of services that could make heavy use of the NBN) the current state of the project is, frankly, infuriating and I don’t think people enjoy reading about how angry I am. Still it seems that the Liberal’s MTM NBN plan has turned from a hypothetical farce into a factual one and I’m not one to pass up an opportunity to lay down criticism where criticism is due.
The slogan the Liberal’s ran with during their election campaign was “Fast. Affordable, Sooner.” promising that they’d be able to deliver at least 25Mbps to every Australian by the end of 2016 with that ramping up to 50Mbps by the end of 2019. This ended up being called the Multi-Technology Mix (MTM) NBN which would now include the HFC rather than overbuilding them and would switch to FTTN technology rather than FTTP. The issues with this plan were vast and numerous (ones I’ve covered in great detail in the past) and suffice to say the technology community in Australia didn’t buy into the ideas one bit. Indeed as time as progressed the core promises of the plan have dropped off one by one with NBNCo now proceeding with the MTM solution despite a cost-benefit analysis not being completed and the speed guarantee is now gone completely. If that wasn’t enough it’s come to my attention that even though they’ve gone ahead with the solution NBNCo hasn’t been able to connect a single customer to the FTTN solution.
It seems the Liberal’s promises simply don’t stand up to reality, fancy that.
The issues they seem to be encountering with deploying their FTTN trial are what many of the more vocal critics had been harping on for a long time, primarily the power and maintenance requirements that FTTN cabinets would require. Their Epping trial has faced several months of delays because they weren’t able to source adequate power, a problem which currently doesn’t have a timeline for a solution yet. The FTTP NBN which was using Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) technology does not suffer from this kind of issue at all and this was showing in the ramp up in deployment numbers that NBNCo was seeing before it stopped its FTTP rollouts. If just the trial of the MTM solution is having this many issues then it follows that the full rollout will fare no better and that puts an axe to the Liberal’s election promises.
We’re rapidly approaching the end of this year which means that the timeline the Liberals laid out is starting to look less and less feasible. Even if the trial site gets everyone on board before the end of this year that still gives only 2 years for the rest of the infrastructure to be rolled out. The FTTP NBN wasn’t even approaching those numbers so there’s no way in hell that the MTM solution would be able to accomplish that, even with their little cheat of using the HFC networks.
So there goes the idea of us getting the NBN sooner but do any of their other promises hold true?
Well the speed guarantee went away some time ago so even the Liberals admit that their solution won’t be fast so the only thing they might be able to argue is that they can do it cheaper. Unfortunately for Turnbull his assumption that Telstra would just hand over the copper free of charge something which Telstra had no interest in doing. Indeed as part of the renegotiation of the contract with Telstra NBNCo will be paying some $150 million for access to 200,000 premises worth of copper which, if extrapolated to all of Australia, would be around $5.8 billion. This does not include the cabinets or remediating any copper that can’t handle FTTN speeds which will quickly eat into any savings on the deal. That’s not going into the ongoing costs these cabinets will incur during their lifetimes which is an order of magnitude more than what a GPON network would.
I know I’m not really treading any new ground by writing all this but the MTM NBN is beyond a joke now; a failed election promise that’s done nothing to help the Liberal’s waning credibility and will only do damage to Australia’s technology sector. Even if they do get voted out come next election it’ll be years before the damage can be undone which is a royal shame as the NBN was one of the best bits of policy to come out of the tumultuous time that was Labor’s last 2 terms in office. Maybe one day I’ll be able to look back on all my rants on this topic and laugh about it but until that day comes I’ll just be yet another angry IT sector worker, forever cursing the government that took away my fibre filled dream.
If you’re of voting age then you’re likely aware of the rhetoric that surrounds our two major political parties. Typically Labor is cast as a party that favours spending with the Liberals being more conservative (and usually “more responsible”). These stereotypes aren’t without merit however as the previous incarnations of both governments ran very close to those lines although the global circumstances in which both of them existed were radically different. Indeed the reason why Australia was one of the few developed countries to avoid a recession during the Global Financial Crisis and the follow Eurozone Crisis was due to the stimulus programs they engaged. However Australians, for one reason or another, seem to prefer our government run a surplus whenever possible and last night’s budget is setting them up for just that.
Hockey and Abbott had been priming us for bad news since talk of the budget first started circulating, noting that we’d all have to pay our fair share in order to correct the “budget emergency”. The line items in the budget show pretty much everyone losing out (with a few notable exceptions including high income earners, private sector business and mining) so the rumors were well founded. You’d be hard pressed to find any regular Australian that was happy with the budget but the consensus from the wider press seems to be that it’s economically sound and will eventually lead us to surplus. As you can probably guess I’m not a fan of it myself as it feels like getting to a surplus, mostly through cutting expenditure, is only being done for the sake of having a surplus.
Australia’s budget isn’t like your home budget where running a deficit for a couple years would likely see you sink into financial ruin. As long as a government is able to make repayments on its debt and is sensible about deficit spending it’s typically not an issue. Indeed when compared to the rest of the world Australia’s debt to GDP ratio is extremely low, well below that of many other countries (including Germany) that are considered fiscally responsible. Thus the talk of a “budget emergency” is built upon a base of incorrect assumptions, ones which have resulted in a budget that hits everyone and hits those hardest who are least able to afford it.
In all honesty it seems like a long term play, one that the current government can take some political pain on now so that when the next election rolls around they can point to the budget and say “Look at this magnificent surplus”. Sure the current projections don’t have that happening for 4 years but this is the first budget of 3 and there’s the real possibility that the next budget will be in the same vein. That is what worries me as whilst running a surplus sounds good the cuts made to get to it are likely to be far more destructive than the small amount of debt required to maintain them.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out with the wider public as this was what the majority of Australians wanted but I’m sure many of them did not expect it to come and slap them in the face like this. The true test will be to see if the political pain is only short term as I believe that’s what the Liberal’s current strategy is betting upon. Abbott is already having a tough enough time as it is with people quickly realising he’s great in opposition but not so in power. Still the Australian public seems to have a short memory and a shiny surplus in 3 years might be enough to convince everyone of the Liberal’s economic credentials (and not the lack thereof).
It seems you can’t go a week without reading at least one article about how us Australians are filthy pirates, depriving the poor rights holders of their hard earned dollars. Whilst the coverage has become a lot more balanced in recent times, mostly thanks to the support of some of the higher up execs in places like HBO, it still seems that Australia’s political landscape is tilted in the wrong direction. For the most part it’s all been postering and bluster but recent statements from our new attorney-general have brought the possibility of draconian and ineffectual piracy control schemes closer to reality. Indeed it seems that rather than tackle the root cause of the issue, I.E. providing a service that’s competitive with what the pirates provide, rights holders are still only interested in protecting their out-dated business models.
George Brandis recently announced that the government would be looking to bring in anti-piracy policies as early as this week which, predictably, sparked outrage among the wider Internet community. The potential policies are the usual suspects we’ve seen bandied about in other countries, things like three strikes laws, taking down sites linking to infringing material and outright blocking larger “infringement enabling” websites. The issues with all these systems are well known and all of them have proved to be vastly ineffective in curbing the amount of piracy that occurs. Worst still Brandis’ rhetoric on the matter shows a complete lack of understanding of the issue at hand: Australian’s don’t have access to a viable alternative. Whilst I’m sure none of his policies will make it through the senate I do worry about people in his position of power making decisions without considering both sides of the piracy equation.
It’s been shown that some of the worst pirates are also the ones spending the most money on content showing that it’s not an issue with wanting something for free. The primary motivator for many pirates is convenience and in this case the legitimate alternative falls far short of what the alternatives provide. You don’t have to look far for evidence of this, just take Steam which has converted many a pirate into paying customers in regions that were once considered impossible to turn a profit in. Piracy rates in Australia will remain high until a solid competitor appears in this space as every entry thus far has proved to be much less than ideal. It’s not like there’s a technical limitation preventing this either, you can use a DNS service to get around the blocking many of the services use, it all comes down to the rights holder’s desire to not change their business model for the digital age.
Indeed the measures proposed are reflective of that stance as whilst they might have worked in the past (shutting down a bootleg CD seller pretty much guarantees that source is gone) they simply don’t function in the Internet age. Blocking websites, no matter what level you do it at, is an incredibly easy thing to work around, so much so that there’s browser extensions to do it for you. With most of those sites not being hosted in Australia the power for Australian ISPs to do anything about them is limited and even then most of them are seconds away from being replicated somewhere else. The Three Strikes style laws are by far the worst as they’re open to wide abuse, usually without little recourse. Whilst this does open up the opportunity for some fun shenanigans (it wouldn’t take much to get every politicians Internet taken down) it’s far better for them to not exist in the first place.
Undoubtedly this situation has arisen due to Australia’s odd place in the world. We’re a remote, affluent country that has a hunger for everything our other western counterparts do. However that remoteness means that companies are, for one reason or another, not interested in bringing their business here or, if they do, it is done at an exorbitant premium. Once rights holders realise that we’ll switch to their services in a heartbeat if they’re reasonably priced and widely available you’ll see the piracy rates of Australia plummet. Until then though all this political posturing will do no one any good and Australia will remain the nation of pirates.
Back in 1996 one of the incoming Howard government’s core promises was to reduce their expenditure dramatically, specifically with regards to their IT. The resulting policy was dubbed the IT Initiative and promised to find some $1 billion dollars in savings in the following years primarily through outsourcing many functions to the private sector. It was thought that the private sector, which was well versed in projects of the government’s scale and beyond, would be able to perform the same function at a far reduced cost to that of permanent public servants. The next decade saw many companies rush in to acquire these lucrative IT outsourcing arrangements but the results, both in terms of services delivered and apparent savings, never matched that which was promised.
For many the reasons behind the apparent failure were a mystery. Many of the organisations involved in providing IT services to the government weren’t fly by night operations, indeed many of them were large multi-national companies with proven track records, but they just didn’t achieve the same outcomes when it came to the government contracts. After nearly a decade of attempting to make outsourcing work many departments began insourcing their IT departments again and relied on a large contractor workforce to bring in the skills required to keep their projects functioning. Of course costs were still above what many had expected them to be, result in the Gershon Report that recommended heavy cuts to said contractor workforce.
This all stems from the one glaring failure that the government has still yet to realise: it can’t negotiate contracts.
I used to work for a large outsourcer in the Canberra region, swept up while I was still fresh out of university into a job that paid me a salary many took years to attain. The outsourcer had won this contract away from the incumbent to provide desktop and infrastructure services whilst the numerous other outsourcers involved in the contract retained ownership of their respective systems. After spending about 6 months as a system admin my boss approached me about moving into the project management space, something I had mentioned that I was keen on pursuing. It was in this position that I found out just how horrible the Australian government was at contract negotiation and how these service providers were the only winners in their arrangements.
My section was dedicated to “new business”, essentially work that we’d be responsible for implementing that wasn’t in scope as part of the broader outsourcing contract. Typically these would be small engagements, most not requiring tender level documentation, and in all honesty would have been considered by any reasonable individual to fall under the original contract. Of course many of the users who I came back to with a bill detailing how much it would cost to do the work they needed often responded with much surprise and often would simply drop the request than try to seek approval for the cost.
The issue still exists today primarily because many of the positions that handle contract negotiations don’t require specific skills or training. This means whilst the regulations in place stop most government agencies from entering into catastrophically bad arrangements the more subtle ones often slip through the cracks and it’s only after everything is said and done that oversights are found. All of the large outsourcers in Canberra know this and it’s why there’s been no force working to correct the problem for the better part of 2 decades. It’s why Canberra exists as a strange microcosm of IT expertise, with salaries that you won’t see anywhere else in Australia.
The solution is to simply start hiring contract negotiators away from the private sector and get them working for the Australian government. Get contract law experts to review large IT outsourcing arrangements and start putting the screws to those outsourcers to deliver more for the same amount of money. It’s not an easy road to tread and it won’t likely win the government any friends but unless they start doing something outsourcing is always going to be seen as a boondoggle, only for those with too much cash and not enough sense.
We’re a country of polluters, there’s no question about that. In terms of world ranking we seem to hover around 11th in per capita pollution, beating other big polluters like China, India and even the United States. Whilst we can lay the blame for a good chunk of that on our resources sector it doesn’t mean that we, as a country, aren’t responsible for it and are obligated to do as much as we can to reduce the amount of carbon and other pollutants that enter our atmosphere. The previous government made some headways into this however our current representatives seem intent on undoing the small amount of good they managed to get through, even if it makes absolutely no sense to do so.
Yesterday it was announced that the Renewable Energy Target (RET), which was revised under the previous government to a larger figure, was going to be reviewed. Now typically this wouldn’t be something to fret about, especially considering that reviews like this are supposed to be carried out by the Climate Change Commission, but since Abbott disbanded them it’s now being led by Dick Warburton a confessed anthropogenic climate change denier. To make matters worse it’s also going to be done in the context of an apparent oversupply of electricity in Australia, something which the current rhetoric from the Abbott government seems to pin wholly on the rapid uptake in renewables.
Are you fucking kidding me.
The Small Scale Renewable Energy Scheme (SRES) and the Large Scale Renewable Target (LRET) schemes have been responsible for a massive increase in the amount of grid connected renewable energy in Australia. Indeed it’s been so successful that we’ve even had some regions revise their own targets above what they initially planned, meaning a very healthy percentage of Australia’s energy now comes from renewable resources. The argument being made now is that the incentives provided to those renewables is costing Australia too much and is leading to a glut of energy production, driving prices lower. Whilst I’d argue that the cost of the program (~$1.6 billion according to Warburton) is worth it I can’t understand the thought process behind people complaining about lower electricity costs.
The source of this rhetoric is somewhat understandable; it’s because Warburton doesn’t believe that we’re responsible for the climate change. Thus, when you take that view, renewables get an unfair amount of treatment with their subsidies and feed in tariffs. However if you take the rational scientific view where we are responsible then the picture becomes far more clear and the paltry price we pay to have such a large percentage of renewable energy is a sound investment. Indeed should we lose both the carbon tax and the RET there’s no telling how much further up the global polluter ranks we’ll climb and I don’t think any rational Australian wants that.
We’re seeing the results of electing a government that is packed with representatives who are running with an agenda that clearly runs opposite to the facts. Whilst I’d love to believe that a review of the RET would show that everything should continue as planned I’m afraid I lost all trust in reviews commissioned in this manner after the total farce that was the NBN strategic review. With Warburton at the helm it’s guaranteed that we’ll see cuts to the RET which will have a strong, negative impact on the state of renewable energy in Australia. Unfortunately that will just be the first hit to soften us up before the real hit comes: the abolishment of the carbon price.
If it wasn’t for the HECS/HELP system I definitely wouldn’t be in the position that I am today. Whilst I didn’t come from an exactly poor family we were definitely on the lower end of the middle class and the prospect of going to uni meant that I’d have to start paying my way. Thankfully I was able to defer my HECS debt until I was able to pay it back through tax allowing me to attend university without having to fork out the $25,000 or so which I simply did not have. After 4 years of an accelerated career that was directly attributable to my university experience the debt was fully repaid back to the Australian government with a little bit of inflation added on top for good measure.
In other countries this same situation probably wouldn’t have been possible. In the USA for instance I would have had to secure a student loan with a bank, something that probably would have seen me paying exorbitant interest rates on top the much higher cost of education. Even if the loan amount remained the same I would’ve been repaying the debt for at least another year just because of interest and I would have been much less inclined to take the risks that I did knowing that I’d have to make those monthly repayments regardless of my current employment situation. The couple percent interest I paid on my HELP debt to curb the deflation on the debt seems like nothing in comparison to that.
The difference between the two systems is the motive behind the loans. HECS/HELP is made by the government to encourage people to go into higher education in the hopes that, because of said education, they will get higher paying jobs and will then be able to contribute more to the economy as well as repaying their debt. Loans made by banks on the other hand, regardless of their intended purpose, are done purely for the motive of generating a profit and they will do anything to maximise the return on them as such. This is why the Liberal’s proposal to securitise (read: sell off) student debt is an inherently bad move.
Should such a deal go down the government would likely have to sell the debt for a fraction of its current value, usually on the order of 40%~60%. This would mean an instant cash windfall of approximately $11 billion or so with the annuity streams being collected by the new owners of the debt. If your government is strapped for cash (which we really aren’t at the moment) then this would seem like a good move however it would only account for 3% of our total budget and only for the year in which it happened. For comparison HECS/HELP revenue was around $1.4 billion back in 2009/2010 financial year meaning that the $11 billion windfall would become a shortfall in 8 years (probably less considering that repayment rates would have likely increased in the interim). It’s a short term cash grab that will make the budget its in look a lot better but at the cost of making every budget that follows it look a lot worse.
The real problem though is the transfer of government owned debt to a private company, one that will inevitably look to make the most out of their investment. Whilst HECS/HELP is one of the few things you can’t discharge through bankruptcy you’re under no obligation to repay it should you not have the means to, a key to encouraging people to at least attempt higher education to further their careers. Should the debt be owned by a bank however there’s no guarantees that the same structures will hold and it’s almost inevitable that the banks would look to squeeze delinquent loans for all they’re worth. Don’t believe me? Just look at the student loan situation in the USA.
Whilst the Liberals may have said that such a plan is not current policy the fact that it’s under consideration should ring alarm bells. It’s an incredibly short sighted move, one that favours short term gains over long term losses which is something that a “fiscally responsible” government should be doing everything to avoid. Selling off national assets, especially one that provides as much value as HECS/HELP does, will only hurt us in the long term no matter how warm and fuzzy running a surplus makes you feel now.
For those of us who spend a lot of time on the Internet, whether productively or not, the National Broadband Network is an easy sell. If you’re not so Internet inclined then there are thousands of tech heads (which, yes, does include this blog) who will gladly take you on a tour of the benefits one that will likely fill an afternoon if you let them. Those same people will also be more than willing to tell you of the many deficits that the Liberal’s NBN plan has, from simple things like having to run the fiber to the nodes anyway all the way down to the power usage and maintenance costs of the cabinets required by such plans. Of course such arguments are usually lost on non-technical people as they’re nuances of a much larger policy that require a decent amount of tech knowledge to understand.
We also lost our champion Senator Conroy in the latest leadership spill, someone who’s deep technical understanding had helped to sell the NBN to the tech crowd. Of course there were also those who were glad to see him go, mostly due to his involvement with the Clean Feed policy, but considering that never went ahead I feel it’s valid to say that his time in office was an overall positive for the state of the high tech in Australia. His replacement however couldn’t have been any less impressive with Anthony Albanese, someone who’s gone on record saying they’re something of a technophobe. This wasn’t taken as a good move at the time, at least not in the tech crowd, but there is one school of thought that this might be just what the NBN needs:
Albanese’s role, then, is less to be the pig-headed advocate that Conroy was, and more to be something of a ring-master — trying to keep his deputies working together to sell a message of continuity to the voting populace. Whether or not he can make that happen without the technical nous that Conroy had, remains to be seen; he will also face a demanding telco community that’s already trying to set his agenda for him.
And yet, just as Tony Abbott seems to have become a stunned mullet in the wake of Rudd’s resurgence, perhaps Conroy’s departure — and the devenomisation of the NBN debate — will allow Albanese to muffle Turnbull and polish the project into a political asset come election time. Either way, it’s sure to be an interesting ride.
I was sceptical when I first started reading the article but after having some time to mull it over I’m inclined to agree with Braue. Whilst it was fun to see Conroy poke hole’s in Turnbull’s faulty technical knowledge it ultimately wasn’t getting us anywhere and the debate felt like it was stagnating on technical points that were doing nothing to win over the general public with the NBN. With things like the asbestos debacle (which is clearly Telstra’s fault and not the NBN’s) most people will just hear “asbestos” and “NBN” and draw their own conclusions; similarly with a dozen other issues like the roll out and the musical chairs that seems to be happening with NBNCo’s board seats. Albanese then, with his pedigree for managing the Infrastructure and Transport portfolio, shifts the focus away from this being a tech-only debate and into the realm of a big infrastructure project. That changes the debate significantly as it’s hard to argue against projects that are ostensibly for the long term benefit of Australia.
His effect on the debate will be very short lived should the Liberal coalition come into power this year. The NBN was a key policy that helped Labor form the minority government 3 years ago and should a similar situation happen this time around then it could pull a victory for them once again. Current polls don’t swing in Labor’s favor however the return of Rudd has seen them get closer than they have been in a long time which makes the likelihood of a similar situation happening again that much more likely. I doubt that the NBN will be their saving grace two times in a row but it’s hard to discount that it will be a factor should it happen again.
I had always tried to explain the numerous benefits of the NBN to my non-technical friends but apart from “faster cats to your browser” convincing them of the other benefits was always a slog, especially with the price tag. Switching tactics and putting it forward as a general infrastructure project, one that will create jobs and opportunities for all Australian’s, seems like the smarter move and I’m sure Labor can win over a few skeptics with this approach. As someone who talks tech incessantly this seemed a little counter intuitive at first but once you realize that most of Australia isn’t elbow deep in tech news all day it makes a lot more sense and hopefully that will work out well for the NBN.
Last week I regaled you with a story of the inconsistent nature of Australia’s broadband and how the current NBN was going to solve that through replacing the aging copper network with optical fibre. However whilst the fundamental works to deliver it are underway it is still in its nascent stages and could be easily usurped by a government that didn’t agree with its end goals. With the election looking more and more like it’ll swing towards the coalition’s favour there has been a real risk that the NBN we end up with won’t be the one that we were promised at the start, although the lack of a concrete plan has left me biting my tongue whilst I await the proposal.
Today Malcolm Turnbull announced his NBN plan, and it’s not good at all.
Instead of rolling out fibre to 93% of Australians and covering the rest off with satellite and wireless connections the Liberal’s NBN will instead only roll fibre to 22%, the remaining 71% will be covered by FTTN. According to Turnbull’s estimations this will enable all Australians to have broadband speeds of up to 25MBps by 2016 with a planned upgrade of up to 100MBps by 2019. The total cost for this plan would be around $29 billion which is about $15 billion less than the current planned total expenditure required for Labor’s FTTP NBN. If you’re of the mind that the NBN was going to be a waste of money that’d take too long to implement then these numbers would look great to you but unfortunately they’re anything but.
For starters the promise of speeds of up to 25MBps isn’t much of an upgrade over what’s available with the current ADSL2+ infrastructure. Indeed most of the places that they’re looking to cover with this can already get such services so rigging fibre up to their nodes will likely not net much benefit to them. Predominantly this is because the last mile will still be on the copper network which is the major limiting factor in delivering higher speeds to residential areas. They might be able to roll out FTTN within that time frame but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll see any dramatic speed increases, especially if you’re on an old line.
Under the Liberal’s plan you could, however, pay for the last mile run to your house which, going by estimates from other countries that have done similar, could range anywhere from $2500 to $5000. Now I know a lot of people who would pay for that, indeed I would probably be among them, but I’d much rather it be rolled out to everyone indiscriminately otherwise we end up in a worse situation we have now. The idea behind the NBN was ubiquitous access to high speed Internet no matter where you are in Australia so forcing users to pay for the privilege kind of defeats its whole purpose.
Probably the biggest issue for me though is how the coalition plans to get to 100MBps without running FTTP. The technologies that Turnbull has talked about in the past just won’t be able to deliver the speeds he’s talking about. Realistically the only way to reliably attain those speeds across Australia would be with an FTTP network however upgrading a FTTN solution will cost somewhere on the order of $21 billion. All added up that makes the Liberal’s NBN almost $5 billion more than the current Labor one so it’s little wonder that they’ve been trying to talk up the cost in the past week or so.
You can have a look at their policy documents here but be warned it’s thin on facts and plays fast and loose with data. I’d do a step by step takedown of all the crazy in there but there are people who are much more qualified than me to do that and I’ll be sure to tweet links when they do.
Suffice to say the Liberal’s policy announcement has done nothing but confirm our worst fears about the Liberal party’s utter lack of understanding about why the FTTP NBN was a good thing for Australia. Their plan might be cheaper but it will fail to deliver the speeds they say it will and will thus provide a lot less value for the same dollars spent on a FTTP solution. I can only hope come election time we end up with a hung parliament again because the independents will guarantee that nobody fucks with the FTTP NBN.
Australia has one of the best education systems available as evidence by our top 10 rankings for literacy, science and mathematics as well as our overall education index of 0.993, tying us for first place with countries like Denmark and Finland. While our system isn’t exactly unique in its implementation I do believe schemes like HECS/HELP are one of the main reasons that the majority of Australians now pursue tertiary education and whilst this might bring about other issues (like a lack of people in trades) it’s clear that benefits far outweigh the costs. Indeed as someone who couldn’t have afforded university without the help of the government and now has a great career to show for it I’m something of a testament to that idea.
Recently however there’s been some criticism of the HECS-HELP system, mostly focused on the amount of student debt owing to the government and the sizeable chunk of that which is never expected to be repaid:
The Grattan Institute’s annual Mapping Australian Higher Education report finds that students and former students have accumulated HECS-HELP debts of $26.3 billion.
This is about an extra $10 billion owing, in real terms, than in 2007.
The interest bill on the income-contingent loan scheme, formerly known as HECS, is nearly $600 million a year, the institute estimates.
And it says HELP debt not expected to be repaid rose to $6.2 billion in 2012.
The report makes for some intriguing reading and does indeed state that there’s a good 25% or so of the current student debt that’s likely to never be repaid. The reasons behind it though are interesting as whilst some would have you think that it’s due to students skipping out on their debts in way or another (ala Liberal MP Steve Ciobo) it’s in fact primarily due to students either dying or moving overseas. Now there’s not a whole lot we can do about the former (except maybe investing more in the health care sector) but the latter is a problem that’s been around for decades and I’ve yet to see a solution proposed, either from the government or the private sector.
Australian graduates, especially in some sectors, suffer from a distinct lack of choice when it comes to finally finding a career once they’re done with their university studies. Whilst I might have managed to make a decent career without looking too far you have to appreciate the fact that my degree isn’t in IT, it’s in engineering, and such is the case for many graduates who try to find something in their chosen path. Usually they can get close but the chances of landing an opportunity directly in their field of study are usually pretty slim and that leads them to look overseas. I myself did exactly that not too long after I graduated and was pretty staggered at the number of opportunities available abroad that I was more than qualified for.
Another point that the report makes is that student debt is seemingly sky rocketing when compared decades prior. The graph above demonstrates that quite clearly but it doesn’t give you any indication as to why this is happening. For starters Australia’s population has increased by about 5.8 million in since 1989 or about 35%. At the same time participation in tertiary education has well over doubled in this time with the vast majority having some form of tertiary qualification and 27% of all Australians now carrying a bachelor’s degree or higher. Essentially there’s been a major cultural shift over the past 2 decades towards pursuing an education through universities rather than other avenues and this is what is responsible for the increase we’ve seen. This isn’t exactly an issue considering our GDP has quadrupled in the same time frame and whilst I won’t say there’s a causative link there I’d say you’d be hard pressed to uncouple higher education rates from improved GDP figures.
Realistically the issue of unpaid student debts isn’t much of an issue for the Australian government considering the wide reaching benefits that our high quality and freely available education system gives us. We still need to do something about our best and brightest moving overseas to greener pastures but it’s clear that the economic benefits of free education for anyone who wants it vastly outweighs the cost of providing it. Even if we were to erase all student debt in one year it would still be only a few percent of the total budget, something that could be easily done should there be any burning need for it to happen. There isn’t of course since the cost of servicing that debt is so low (comparatively) and there are much better things to spend that money on.