Politicisation of NBN a ‘tragedy’ that has held back innovation, ABC’s Q&A told

The politicisation of the National Broadband Network is a “tragedy” which has held Australia back when it comes to innovation and technological advancement, ABC’s QA program has heard.

Monday night’s panel, brought together to discuss innovation, collaboration and the NBN, centred around Australia’s ability to keep pace with the rest of the world when it came to technology and innovation, how to attract investment, how to stop the brain drain of graduates heading overseas, and how to increase the representation of women in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions.

In January the government revealed it had earmarked $28m to advertise its $1.1bn innovation agenda, which included tax breaks to angel investors and encouraging public and private sector collaboration, but panellists said politics was getting in the way of progress.

Panellists included the Coalition’s assistant minister for innovation, Wyatt Roy; the opposition innovation spokesman, Ed Husic; entrepreneur and youth advocate Holly Ransom; venture capitalist and consultant Sandy Plunkett; and quantum physicist and technologist Michael Biercuk.

While the speakers were in agreement on most issues, Roy was alone in his support for the government’s controversial NBN model.

Biercuk, who is also chief investigator in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQuS), said there had not been a lot of honesty in the Australian NBN debate.

“Really the debate is about how much the government wants to invest public dollars in building infrastructure. It ignores the multiplier effect of investing in infrastructure because that’s a complicated argument to make,” he said.

“It is not about who delivered it on time or under budget because nobody does, it is always more expensive. It will be expensive but if the population values it and we say that, then this debate will stop.”

The Coalition’s NBN model currently being rolled out uses a mix of existing technologies – copper and HFC networks – in a bid to cost less than the fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) Labor model while sacrificing some fundamental aspects.

However leaked documents and revised costings have revealed a rising price tag and failures to meet deadlines. The Coalition’s original estimate of $29.5bn looks set to almost double, Fairfax reported in February.

“From the perspective of being a physicist and someone who worked at DARPA [Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency], a US agency focused on innovation where I was working on advanced optical networking, it was obvious from the beginning anything other than fibre would not possibly deliver what was promised,” Biercuk added.

Ransom, who chaired the 2014 G20 youth summit, said it was a hindrance not having fibre across the country and proper investment was needed.

“We didn’t see it as the sum cost and how we deliver the critical objective that will underpin the economy. Instead we said ‘Let’s go for the safer objective because it is less front-page headlines’,” she said.

“We haven’t delivered an outcome that serves Australians and gives us the level of broadband speed and reach we need. We want to see these sorts of things invested in properly and done right because that’s what will set up the economy in the future.”

The QA discussion was sparked by a question from digital strategist Simon Van Wyk, who said that under the tutelage of prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, Australia had dropped from 30th to 60th place in world broadband speeds.

“I’d like to know why the government talk about wanting innovation but seem to be actively undermining the actual ecosystem that was going to drive some of that innovation, particularly outside the capital cities,” asked Van Wyk.

Roy defended the government’s NBN strategy, and said it was about separating “rhetoric and reality”.

He said people in regional areas who currently have dial-up speeds had been excluded from the conversation under Labor’s model, because supporters were asking those residents to “wait a long time through an internet wasteland for an internet nirvana”.

Husic responded that the government was going to an election over an issue not many people were talking about – the Australian Building and Construction Commission – but not over the NBN which people wanted to see done.

“The thing is the Coalition tried to portray the NBN when they couldn’t destroy it as something that would enable Netflix to happen quicker,” he said.

“In actual fact, it would allow for regions – I feel strongly about the fact we need to broaden the innovation effort to involve the regions – [to] see economic opportunity by keeping their young people local, seeing new enterprises form and distance would no longer disadvantage them or keep them out of economic activity.

“We need the NBN and we need to get it fixed way better than what we are having at the moment – double the cost, not meeting the targets and people being left behind – as we see other countries catapult ahead of us on broadband speed.”

Innovations expert Sandy Plunkett said “the NBN has been so politicised … it’s just such a tragedy for Australia”.

Plunkett also warned political parties must resist descending into slogans as the country embarks on a “massive cultural change”.

Australia is a “nation socially of gamblers”, but lacks the kind of entrepreneurial risk-taking it needs to chase innovation which it had demonstrated in the mining sector, she said.

“We have invested in mining extraction, one of the hardest businesses in the world, [but] we haven’t been exposed to a new type of intellectual power, software tools which are the modern wealth creators of the future.

“We have got to reframe that. We have got to literally turn our thinking towards a different sort of era for Australia and unfortunately I think … both parties have to resist descending into slogans. Most people don’t know what innovation means to them outside of the true believers at this table and probably in this audience, mums, dads, educators, they don’t know what that word ‘innovation’ means.”

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