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Most of the Time Common Sense Eventually Prevails

I have learned that lesson many times over. In many of the issues that we are facing, as a society or in our industry, I am reasonably confident that common sense will eventually prevail. Sometimes the road twists and turns, but in the end water flows around rocks.

In our industry I can refer to developments we have been advocating for (structural separation, utilities-based telecoms infrastructure, broadband for social and economic benefits, ICT-based industry and sector transformation, FttH, internet as a tool for more direct democracies, etc). Inevitably these developments will happen; and they are happening.

Take structural separation. While New Zealand has implemented this and Australia is on the way, when it was discussed in the 00s most of my American colleagues saw it as pure heresy. Now, with FCC chair Tom Wheeler leading the charge for more competition in the American telecoms industry, structural separation is suddenly being discussed widely within political, media and industry circles.

It is sad, and at the same time amusing, to see AT&T;throwing a tantrum and cancelling all of its FttH plans—plans that don’t exist. The incumbents in the USA have broken every single promise in relation to their fibre rollouts—promises they made in order to get regulatory favours (which they always got as they are too big to fail). So the FCC has—just to make sure—now asked for a detailed overview of what their FttH plans actually are.

In Australia, the current government might have abandoned FttH, but with over already now (2014) 100 million FttH subscribers in our neighbouring countries, and such great progress in Europe, it will only be a matter of time before it is put back on the political agenda—this is inevitable.

These discussions are made so painful because we have created a polarised society based on political ideologies and an economy where a few players have become so big that they cannot fail, and they are therefore extremely successful in protecting their monopolies/oligopolies. It was for that simple reason that the previous government in Australia and its counterpart in New Zealand decided for structural separation of their incumbent telcos. The longer you wait the more powerful the message ‘too big to fail’ will become. America is now noticing this in its net neutrality debate, a problem the country created for itself by giving its incumbent telcos regulatory favour upon favour. And with many politicians depending on the money they receive from these companies it will be very difficult to get structural changes through.

This is not just happening in the telecoms industry. Look at the banking system in the USA. Despite their criminal behaviour during the GFC the banks are back in the saddle and as powerful as ever. Look at the mining companies and see how powerful they are in Australia in dictating the political environmental agenda in this country—often cheered on and openly supported by the conservative press, happy to bring in climate deniers and using (in the USA) the threats of communism and socialism to preserve monopolies.

There is a lot happening in our society and our economy, and one thing is certain—that the way ahead will have to be based on more direct democracies. Current political trends are moving towards plutocracies. This has to be stopped, and ICT can play a key role in this.

I would even dare to say that our industry will have to take a leadership role in it.

Taking leadership means looking beyond the barriers that are thrown up by politicians and incumbent industries. In many instances it is simply better to ignore current barricades and to start planning as if they don’t exist.

I do this in Australia, and often also in my work for the UN.

For example, in Australia, regardless of what political flavour is given to the NBN today common sense will prevail and FttH will eventually happen. In relation to energy, people are ‘voting with their solar panels’ so whether the government wants it or not the renewable industry will find its way into the country; batteries will follow and electricity companies will have to build distributed energy systems at the edge of the network, or others will do so. They will need to build a smart interexchange backbone to handle all these new developments.

In my UN work this is often more difficult because of an even more powerful link between incumbent industries and politicians, both protecting each other—one through providing the money in their billions to the politicians and their extended families and the other through the provision of political and regulatory favours. I have found that this is extremely hard to fight, and it is halting progress for most of the people in these countries. The top layer gets everything, including, in relation to our industry, even FttH connections, while most of the country still operates on or below the poverty line—this despite the fact that some of these countries earn tens of billions of dollars a year from activities such as mining.

Back to the developed economies…

It is often fruitless to fight the day-to-day battles with ideological politicians or incumbent industries. Instead it is much easier to simply plan for what will have to happen anyway and in the meantime go with the flow, as water will flow around those barriers.

Eventually the penny will drop and the barricades will go, often because of totally unpredictable developments, sometimes with the assistance of people power and at other times technologies come to the rescue. By staying focussed on the inevitable outcomes we continue to be able to guide society and our industries.

I also keep an open mind on how we actually achieve those outcomes. There are political differences but I don’t mind if we get their clockwise or anti-clockwise—I am not ideologically committed in that respect.

If we had stopped to fight against the flow, by the time the hurdles were gone we would find ourselves exhausted and without a vision on what should come next. I want to be there after the blockades have disappeared and to have the strategies ready to start implementing the longer-term visions as soon as the opportunity is there.

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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