Let the Digital Migration Begin


The Andrew Olle Media Lecture given by Communications Minister Helen Coonan was most impressive, and, unlike Emma Dawson in last week’s New Matilda, I pretty much agreed with all that she said.

However, comparing Australia with other countries, I believe a great deal of the migration towards new digital media that Coonan spoke of will happen automatically, once the right government policies are in place and more importantly implemented. Most of that migration will have nothing to do with the media, or with the journalists who are writing about it, making Coonan’s address to the nation’s media professionals somewhat misplaced.


Many observers still don’t seem to understand what broadband is all about. This was made very clear by the comments of one journalist at the Andrew Olle Lecture about the foolishness of making broadband freely available; he questioned the business model for such a concept and claimed that it will undermine the economic viability of the broadband companies involved. He missed the point that broadband needs to be seen as a utility as basic infrastructure, whose benefits are mainly in the services and applications that will be delivered through it.

Looking at the countries where good broadband infrastructure is available shows that the digital migration will be stimulated not just by the media but, far more importantly, by health care services, community services, educational services, local governments, and so on.

Services provided by these organisations will increasingly be based on broadband delivery. The customer will have access to, for instance, an aged care monitoring service, a migrant education service, a pacemaker check-up, a remote consultation with a specialist, or an Aboriginal language service all delivered via e-services over broadband.

Broadband will not just be economic infrastructure, it will also operate as social infrastructure. As I have said before, when you buy a newspaper at the newsagent, you are not asked at the counter to pay extra for the paper it is printed on. When you have flowers delivered there is no extra charge for courier’s use of the roads.

Nevertheless, in one way or another, the printers and the road-builders earn money and make profits too.

So, rather than worrying about who is going to pay for broadband, we need to address the infrastructure/utility issue.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Some of this infrastructure will be economically viable, other parts will be paid for by the Government and private operators working in the various sectors such as health care, ageing and education. And yes, some will need to be subsidised, but this is the case with virtually every other form of infrastructure.

So let’s get on with the job.

National infrastructure requires national policies and national strategies. Where are these for broadband? For more than a decade we have been talking about this. We have had many inquiries working on national blueprints and government reports have been produced. Now, yet another blueprint committee seems to be working on exactly the same issues.

I can produce a broadband blueprint in half a day, and I will do it free of charge. What we need is action, not talk.

Many people involved in health care, education and other sectors agree they say if they are given the infrastructure they will offer the services. This will drive digital migration.

The Minister herself (no one else in this country holds the key) can start up digital migration or she can just leave the key in the ignition and once again nothing will happen.

Here are the four crucial elements to digital migration, all of which are under Coonan’s direct control:

Media reforms
The Minister is protecting traditional media, increasing its value and thus concentrating investment in it. These old media are driven by the commercial reality of the value of their monopolies. Government policies are clearly resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on old media rather than new. While the Minister, as the executor of media policies, can be held accountable for this, it was the Prime Minister who was the architect, by refusing to implement proper media reforms. So Government policies are actually working in direct opposition to the Minister’s vision for digital migration.

‘Broadband Connect’
The Minister is in charge of Broadband Connect, a multi-million dollar Government initiative designed to give equitable access to broadband across the country. However, without clear guidelines regarding infrastructure standards and interconnect policies, this initiative is not going to deliver the infrastructure needed to support Coonan’s digital migration strategies.

Telecoms policies
The Minister initiated and arranged the official Government policy for the operational separation of Telstra. This could open up the infrastructure so it can be used for all the abovementioned services that are needed to drive digital migration. Where is her action plan for implementation?

It is far too easy to find excuses as to why other countries are moving faster than Australia in their digital migration processes. However, the fast movers all have one thing in common very strong government policies, enforced by strong regulators. The Minister’s predecessor implemented, contrary to global precedent, a self-regulatory regime, which put Telstra in control of the pace of policy implementation. Helen Coonan has the power to change this regime and fast-track the implementation of her own policies.

So, Minister, the ball is clearly in your court, and we are all waiting for you to hit it so we can support your very worthwhile policy objective of digital migration.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.