For the second time in recent months, Communications Minister Helen Coonan has found herself in the awkward position of trying to defend the merits of specific technologies.
Coonan argued that the government had anticipated that the porn filter announced by the Prime Minister last week would be cracked, eventually but must have been shocked by how quickly it was. On Friday, a year ten student found a workaround in thirty minutes, and defeated the subsequent update in forty more. Nevertheless, the government stands by the software it chose.
Similarly, when the Minister announced that the Optus-Elders consortium had won nearly a billion dollars to provide regional broadband, she was forced to defend the WiMAX technology against a barrage of criticism.
WiMAX is a high-quality technology but its reputation has suffered from some outrageous claims by its proponents. Early WiMAX advocates breathlessly claimed ranges of up to 70 kilometres. The government claims a range of 25 kilometres – even this is hopelessly optimistic.
Real life experience suggests that the technology has a much more modest range of 5-10 kilometres, in good conditions. And only on spectrum that the Optus-Elders network doesn’t currently have access to.
This new role – the government as tech expert – is becoming more and more prominent. Consumers are now quick to learn whether specific technologies or services meet the government’s seal of approval.
For instance, Telstra’s Next G service is, apparently, not satisfactory – Helen Coonan has received “hundreds of complaints”.
The Minister has also determined that a recent Telstra upgrade of its Hybrid Fibre Coaxial cable network is better than fibre-to-the-node technology, which will be news for those in the industry who have spent the last two years debating the appropriate regulatory framework to encourage firms to invest in fiberoptic broadband network.
Sometimes these statements are mere rhetoric flourishes, indicative only of a government struggling to navigate the complex interactions between politics and high-technology. But many in the industry are frustrated with the Communications Minister’s self-appointed role as technology propagandist and critic.
The government, when pressed, insists that it remains strictly “technology neutral” when it writes public policy. Unfortunately, the reality is much different.
In the course of the long-running dispute with Telstra, the government has largely abandoned allowing the market to decide the most suitable technologies. Instead, it has readopted the characteristic winner picking strategies which have long discredited national industry policies.