29/08/2006 - 22:00

Time running out on telecommunications

29/08/2006 - 22:00


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The federal government’s announcement that the next tranche of Telstra is to be sold is good news.

The federal government’s announcement that the next tranche of Telstra is to be sold is good news.

Breaking the commonwealth’s control of Telstra will, I believe, be the key to unlocking Australia’s telecommunications from its past.

It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight. Telstra will remain a political football for a long time coming but it will no longer be completely restrained by the government.

While I have said before that it is a pity the government didn’t break up the retail aspect of Telstra from the distribution network, I can’t continue to cry over spilt milk.

The best we can now hope for is a fully independent Telstra reined in by strong watchdogs, who now have much less to lose in trying to ensure that Australia’s telco giant acts fairly in the marketplace.

This decision brings some certainty.

Telstra, you can be certain, will now only be acting in its own commercial interest. While that might scare some in the sector, at least they can read the play more certainly.

The next challenge will be to make sure that the government focuses on good policy – some might say a policy – in this arena, rather than abandoning it just because it no longer has a stake in it.

For too long the federal government has played policy cat-and-mouse with a huge market player that understood the market much better than it did.

In effect, at least from an outsider’s point of view, the tail, enormous as it is, has been wagging the dog.

It is unfortunate that, while the federal government includes people of passion who are prepared to take a stand on issues such as stem cell research – which will have little impact on the development of this nation – it has failed to find anyone to take charge and drive a coherent communications policy, which is arguably something that may influence our place in the world for decades to come.

Fortunately, in my view, it is not too late.

While many would argue Australia is behind the pack when it comes to IT infrastructure, the lesson WA Business News has learned is that we are not that badly off – yet.

Given Australia’s unique geography, the balance between a highly urbanised society, interspersed with some of the most remote needs imaginable, it is fair to say that our current systems represent a compromise that, for the moment and perhaps only just, works.

For the next few years, we remain competitive.

But that won’t last long.

As the services for the internet blossom and the demand for high speed ramps up, it is only a matter of time before internet speeds become a real issue.

Prime Minister John Howard could always read what the battlers needed. The question is whether he plans to be in charge when this so-called demographic realises that it needs cheap access to high-speed services.

In the end, the federal government needs to develop a far-reaching strategy that will provide the infrastructure required when it is wanted.

That is not something we can continue to rely on Telstra to do, now that it has been cut loose.

If and when the copper network reaches its real use-by date, there needs to be a replacement plan. The key to this is for government to find a way to put that in place without one conflicted user being in command and control.

It may well be the case that this solution is simple and keeping it competitive is easy. In the developing world there are many countries with state-of-the-art communications systems because the architecture they use has been created from scratch due to a complete lack of prior infrastructure.

There is every possibility that by eking out the last unit of value from our old-fashioned copper system, we can replace it with real next generation technology that is cheap enough and flexible enough to allow multiple providers to invest in it.

Let’s hope so, for all our sakes.

Clubhouse can play an important role

It is great to see the next development at Cottesloe – the surf life saving clubhouse near the golf course.

Surf clubs used to be these great and important social settings but, as other options have evolved, they have tended to become little more than functional utilities for beach safety.

That is fine, but in my view, fails to make the most of these resources.

People want more access to facilities by the beach, without wrecking the real assets here – the sand, surf and the sea life.

I know many people get upset by any change, but they are the same people who now find themselves so much a part of the coffee culture that was absent in Perth 20 years ago.

If we can make the most of our beach without spoiling it and, better still, helping fund future beach safety, why shouldn’t we?

The fact is, Perth needs to adapt to fit the lifestyles of current and upcoming generations, not get exclusively fixed on the past.

Preservation is important, but we need to find the right blend to accommodate all tastes, including those who are yet to arrive.


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