Monday, May 23, 2011

Being realistic about the NBN

Driving back from Canberra yesterday, my mind was full of possible stories, of things to write about. Too full, I fear. I woke this morning to a mental impasse, brain too crowded. I took a while to sort things through.

Yesterday's post, Reporting on the NBN - a local perspective was as the name says. Then I found the University of New England news release associated with the NBN launch, Broadband launch puts UNE and Armidale at the forefront. Reading about the three projects mentioned gave me a sense of déjà vu.

I should mention the projects first:

  • SmartFarm technology which includes sensor platforms for crops, pasture and livestock, mentoring and diagnostic applications for farm machinery, and high-definition videoconferencing
  • UNE’s collaboration with the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, which brings high-tech broadband-enabled educational applications to regional Australian medical students
  • the EDUONE portal - a joint project between the New England Institute of TAFE and UNE, in which the project partners will lead the dissemination of free media-rich open-source digital educational materials and communication applications for individual and workplace training, including lead-in to VET and university courses

When I say a sense of déjà vu, I am not being critical of the projects themselves. it's just that I have been around the high technology scene for a long time, including involvement in Armidale and UNE projects. Hype like the following actually makes me uncomfortable: 

Speaking at the launch, the Prime Minister said: “The NBN will end the tyranny of distance between rural and regional Australia and our capital cities, literally changing the way Australians live and work.”

While I am a supporter of the NBN concept, I think a degree of realism is required.

I am old enough to have been though a number of waves in the electronics, computing and communications environment. Each was seen as creating a new golden age. It hasn't quite worked that way. 

Part of the problem is that results at project or even technology level are often far less than expected by protagonists. As a broad generalisation, the short term impact from new technology tends to be less than expected, while the long term impact is often greater than expected, although the effects themselves may be unexpected!

Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

The idea that the combination of computing and communications technology might overcome the tyranny of distance is quite old. By the mid eighties, it was quite clear that the affects were going to be different than expected.

Within Australia, the new technologies led to the transfer of activities from regional areas because they facilitated centralisation. A similar effect happened globally. The new technologies created what were called footloose activities that could be carried out anywhere and moved to lowest cost points.

This process continues. Nobody should assume that any part of Australia nor indeed Australia itself will benefit in terms of new economic activities after adjusting for transfers of activities.

Nor should one assume that computing and communications technologies of themselves will overcome disadvantage where those disadvantages are based on other variables not affected by the technology.

Take e-health as an example. It may give people better notional access to health services. However, there are still just so many doctors. If you assume that doctors are already busy, then the new technology may in fact simply increase pressure on already stretched time.

Similar effects can arise in e-education. The new technology may facilitate access, but the teachers or lecturers involved still have to prepare material and provide student support. This can actually take more time than traditional approaches.

E-activities may, in fact, reduce the standard of service offered because cost considerations dictate the form of the service: it allows costs to be shifted from supplier to customer; it encourages forms of activity that centre on the economics of maximum on-line delivery even though this may not be as good; and it may lock us into delivery modes even though we know that they are not the best simply because of the size of system replacement costs. 

None of this means that I do not support the NBN. I just wanted to register a caution re expectations.

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