Almost a decade ago, Dr Lucy Cradduck (Senior Lecturer, QUT Faculty of Law) examined the legal challenges facing the then to be constructed Australian national broadband network (NBN). That dissertation, ‘The future of the Internet Economy: Addressing challenges facing the implementation of the Australian National Broadband Network‘, served to reinforce the core role internet access can play in our lives; and that the then existing Australian legislation was directed to enabling competition and competitors, rather than individuals. Also, her research identified that high speed internet access and the NBN were being treated by all sides of politics as a political hot potato. In the intervening years, it appears that little has changed.
High speed broadband, the NBN specifically, and internet access per se are utility services, much the same as power or water provision to our homes, without which we cannot effectively function as individuals. The consequences of failing to recognise this utility nature, according to Dr Lucy Cradduck and other researchers, is now dire. The reality of this failure, as seen in the face of COVID-19’s social and business impacts, is stark and uncompromising:
“There is now an NBN divide.”
Many students and parents are worried because their families do not have appropriate access or equipment to support our next generation in their schooling. Many businesses also face difficulties because, while enabling employees to work from home sounds like a great plan, not all employees have that capacity. Socially, many Australians simply are not enabled to engage and live because their access is uncertain or, worse, non-existent.
As Dr Cradduck points out: if you want everyone to be able to function effectively in the digital economy, you have to enable them. Access means more than just mobile telephone use, or the ability to play games. Individuals, families, students, businesses and employees must have NBN access and must have appropriate hardware and software to use the NBN, and must have these now; and those without financial capacity must be supported in their access.
These issues have continued throughout our NBN journey. As Dr Cradduck noted in 2015, to have “a fully functioning internet economy and a fully functioning real world economy everyone needs to be enabled to access and operate in the internet. Business and countries are only as strong as their weakest citizen.”
So, what is the solution?
According to Dr Cradduck, there are four key things our governments can do:
- We need our governments to act more quickly, as “rolling out the high-speed broadband networks [still] continues too slowly, as does upskilling and financially enabling a significant part of the population.” All governments (and oppositions) need to work together to ensure the NBN is completely rolled out ASAP – think of the jobs this will bring and those this work will support.
- Everyone needs access to the internet by whatever means possible right now – there is much to be done to enable our country while those without the NBN wait to get access.
- It is necessary to ensure all our students, families, and at home workers have adequate computers and software. Where necessary, this will mean providing adequate financial support to enable individuals to acquire and maintain this equipment and the skills to use them.
- It is important to ensure that there are no bandwidth or other latency issues that adversely impact our use. It is necessary to ensure that access works effectively for everyone when they need to use it.
All sides of politics, and all levels of government, need to heed the lessons COVID-19 presents. Highspeed broadband, internet access, and the computer equipment and software to enable that access, are not luxuries. They are not toys. They are necessities. Most importantly, the NBN is a utility service and not a potato, and it is not hot. It is time for governments to stop playing with it as though it were one.
About Lucy Cradduck
Dr Lucy Cradduck is a Senior Lecturer at QUT Faculty of Law and is also a member of the Queensland Law Society and the Australian Property Institute. Lucy maintains her Practising Certificate as a Solicitor, and has held positions in private firms, in-house and within government.
You can learn more about Lucy and her research and publications in her staff profile.