blog Remember how earlier in the week we hosted several discussions on Delimiter about Australia’s telecommunications regulatory environment and how it could have been set up differently? Remember how so many readers whaled on University of Canberra academic Michael de Percy and I for merely suggesting that it was feasible (in fact, normal, in global terms) for the private sector to do most of the heavy lifting for broadband provision, with governments normally helping out by subsidising rural areas? Yeah, good times. Well, for balance, today we present the opposing view.
Vox Media in the US has recently published a fascinating interview with Susan Crawford, former Special Assistant to President Obama on Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy. In it, Crawford expresses a view very similar to that taken by the Australian Labor Party — that the development of broadband is too important to be left to the profit-focused private sector. A sample paragraph:
“This is a very expensive thing to build in the first place — much like the highway system also very expensive to build. As a profit-making company what they’re going to try to do is focus on those areas where they feel they can get the highest rewards, and those are often the richest neighborhoods. They’re going to leave out less wealthy areas and places that are more remote. But we’re one country and every American needs this access just the same way every American needed a telephone line.”
The popularity of Labor’s all-encompassing NBN policy in Australia coupled with Australians’ love for big government means that Crawford’s view, if expressed down under, would be quite mainstream. However, in the US, where free market capitalism is very much the order of the day, Crawford’s views come across as quite revolutionary — almost taboo — in that the advisor is calling for the US Government to strongly intervene in the telecommunications sector on a national basis, as Kevin Rudd’s Government tried to do with the NBN in Australia.
As I’ve said before, I support Labor’s original all-fibre NBN vision, and I think it’s the best telecommunications policy Australia has ever had, although the implementation has not been ideal. However, I’m not naive enough to think that it’s the only way broadband in Australia can get upgraded. There are plenty of examples internationally, particularly the structural separation of BT in the UK, where a smart approach to industry regulation has also paid very strong dividends. In any case, Crawford’s view is an interesting one — and particularly coming as it does out of the United States.