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National Broadband, Leadership or Procrastination

There is no doubt that any national infrastructure plan of the magnitude of national broadband networks as they are currently rolled out in 9 countries and which policies have been put in place in another 110 countries will have questions attached to it. Furthermore, this infrastructure is being developed for the digital economy, which, in itself, is a fast-moving world. Five years ago there were no smartphones, tablets, mobile apps or smart TVs. And nowhere in the world were there any large-scale e-education, M2M or e-health projects underway. These changes all occurred during the last five years. Making any predictions 2 or 3 years ahead, let alone 5 or 10 years, will be very risky, inaccurate and will lead to endless debates about the multitudes of possible scenarios.

During the same last five years significant sections of our society have experienced major difficulties—the GFC, the political crises in many countries and the environmental crisis are some of these issues, but one can add ageing populations without the appropriate staffing levels available, poverty without economic prospects, the massive changes required in education, and the effects of population growth in developing countries. In the future that lies ahead, none of these issues can be managed in the traditional way. Broadband cannot solve these problems, but without a high quality broadband infrastructure none of them will be solved anyway.

What is needed from politicians and other decision-makers is leadership. We elect or appoint these people to come up with innovative solutions that enable us to advance as a society.

Leadership needs to be balanced against an endless process of procrastination, worldwide, in reforming societies and economies to better address the GFC, climate change, healthcare, education and infrastructure requirements. This is occurring partly because sector and industry transformation does not favour incumbent sectors and industries and they will try to stop these changes, or delay them for as long as possible. We see plenty of examples of this in the response to changes forced upon them by the digital economy in sectors such as retail, energy, telecoms, banking, media, publishing, etc. And one of the tools frequently used to procrastinate is a request for a cost benefit analysis (CBA).

Leadership also means daring to take decisions and sticking to them. If needed, national broadband policies need to have enough flexibility attached to them in order to make changes where and when it makes sense during the roll our process. There is no shame attached to recognising the need to make adjustments. Supported by a solid vision and strategy these policies should not be dogmatic; the market is far too dynamic for that. However, changing the original vision and strategy based on politics or the interests of vested interests is not good leadership.

Now I am certainly not saying the CBAs are useless or that they should not be undertaken. What I am arguing for is a balanced approach between vision and leadership and conservative management of the issues.

According to the UN, there are now 119 countries around the world that have accepted national broadband policies. None of these countries’ policies are identical; they are all different—they reflect the political, social, economical, financial and geographical conditions that prevail in each case. However all agree that a broadband infrastructure is needed to face the economic and social challenges that each country is facing, and the broadband infrastructure is perceived by all to be critical for the development of the digital economy, healthcare, education, e-government and so on.

We also see that all the resource-rich countries have embarked on large-scale FttH projects in order to diversify their economies.

One can argue endlessly about what technologies should be applied and at what cost, but I believe that—once sound policies decision have been made, clearly articulating for what purposes a national broadband network will be built—it is best to leave the technical decisions to the experts. International telecoms experts unanimously agree that an FttH network is the best future-proof solution. One can debate about whether it is needed in 5,10,15 or 20 years—and again that depends on some of the differences between countries as mentioned above—but in the end FttH is the best final solution for all urban and many regional premises.

These predictions are based on a 50-year-horizon view, so it is future-proof. But can we know over such a long period what the exact cost will be? Did we know that when we started the electrification of the country, the construction of the railways, motorways, water, sewerage or gas infrastructure?

The future of telecoms extends far beyond internet access, and even beyond the social and economic services it can deliver. This year, for the first time, there are more devices and sensors connected to the various national telecoms networks than there are people or premises connected to it. Over the next 10 years this will grow to tens of billions of devices, all essential in the monitoring and management of our economy and society in relation to environmental sustainability, energy, traffic, security, healthcare and so on. This development alone requires an infrastructure with very high capacity, low latency, security, privacy protection, and, above all, affordability for both the end-users and the providers of the services.

So, yes, let us remain vigilant, ask questions, finetune the process surrounding the roll out of national broadband networks, and make changes when and where needed; but let us do it in line with the overall vision and strategy of these networks in relation to the digital economy. There is no doubt that such a vision will ultimately require an FttH infrastructure, so that should be the end goal.

The other given is affordability for the benefit of the country, not for the purpose of maximising profits. Business models and their profitability should be built on top of the infrastructure, in exactly the same way as other infrastructure is used. From a financial and investment point of view broadband infrastructure should be treated as utility infrastructure.

And, yes, more CBAs can be made but already 119 countries and their governments have accepted the vision and the overall strategy of a national broadband network, so obviously there must be some social and economic benefit. Exactly how much is very hard to calculate—as mentioned one only has to look at developments over the last five years. Nobody has a crystal ball capable of making a truly reliable CBA for the next decade. If we have to depend on that, along with the endless arguments about the hundreds of possible scenarios that might ensue, we will continue to procrastinate.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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