how to waste billions on the internet’s information superhighway


Still, somehow, we seem to pretty much accept the catastrophe.

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OK, we do whinge. At least I know I do. And when I recently received a notification that the NBN was coming to my street, I felt like it should have come with a condolence letter.

My local ABC radio regularly hosts a courageous NBN spokesperson who attempts to deal with questions and complaints from disgruntled listeners. And oh boy, there is a lot of disgruntlement.

I feel sorry for this person because she’s stuck defending the indefensible, not so much trying to put out spot fires as apologising for a huge firestorm that she didn’t light.

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For me, and for many of those callers, the botched NBN mostly means inconvenience, such as more frequent glitches while watching Netflix. But some businesses depend on a fast, reliable internet connection, and for them, the loss is real and quantifiable.

Then there’s the many innovative businesses that might have been started and thrived if the NBN had not been sabotaged. Which is perhaps the most tragic aspect of the whole mess: the opportunities that have been squandered and will not arise again for a long, long time.

My mother provides me with yet another perspective on the debacle, passing on a steady stream of NBN horror stories, gleaned from her elderly friends. Her friend, Moira, who didn’t have a phone for weeks after the NBN came to her street. Or Janice, who had her phone number changed even though she’d had the same one for decades, and pleaded to keep it. My 91-year-old aunt has now heard so many tales of NBN woe from her friends that she is panicked at the prospect of her own turn coming.

I try to help my mum through her NBN-related problems, but it’s a hopeless cause. Because, like so many, I’m profoundly ignorant about how it all works. ADSL sounds like a quirky new European supermarket chain to me. Cable, satellite, fibre to the node … I don’t even know what a node is, much less whether I have one.

And perhaps that’s the real problem here. If the road debacle that I described really took place, we’d look straight at the government and pillory them for the politicised, short-sighted decision-making that set the catastrophe in train. Because roads are something we can all see and understand, while for many of us, the technology behind the internet isn’t.

So it’s easy for people like my mother to blame an amorphous “NBN corporation”, or to assume that the many cock-ups are inevitable, without thinking about who is responsible for the horrendously expensive mess.

We saw something similar with the recent bushfires, when some members of the government tried to blame the conflagration on arsonists, or “greenies”, instead of accepting their own key role in the catastrophe. Hoping that in the haze of confusion and misunderstanding, people’s anger could be shifted.

And the terrifying thing is, it’s a tactic that appears to work. After all, if you can squander billions of taxpayers’ money with little mud sticking, what else might you get away with?

Twitter: @monicadux

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