Thursday, November 24, 2005

Technological pork

What is it with flash technology? Politicians seem to have an inbuilt attraction to promoting its use regardless of whether consumers are willing to pay for it. The last week has seen a flood of plans to deliver the best technology to ignorant people who refuse to pay for the latest invention.

First we had the story that the UN wanted to promote the supply of wind-up laptops to third world countries. Surely there are higher priorities in these countries than the supply of computers. I haven't seen these computers up close, but I imagine they're pretty useless at putting food on the table or supplying clean drinking water. And, for those countries lucky enough to have high levels of nutrition, the highest priority should be giving them opportunities to increase their income and then they can decide whether they want to spend it on laptops, ipods, or whatever they goddamn please. Anyone still deluded by the view that the technology helps development should check out this report from the Economist (subscription required).

Then we had the 'funny if it wasn't serious' suggestion of Helen Coonan (the Minister for Communications) that the government should pay for digital set top boxes. Just when you thought Australian broadcasting policy couldn't get any worse, Coonan shows that she is indeed the rightful successor to Alston. Allegedly the raft of restrictions that the Government already apply (limiting the number of TV channels, not allowing 'multi-channelling' and mandating the transmission of 'hungry' high definition signals) are needed to reduce the adjustment pressures that incumbent broadcasters are facing. Well Coonan's surrender on the issue shows just how much 'adjustment' is actually going on: the transition is going so fast that the switch off date has been put back and the Government has to step in with wads of cash to get things moving. Has it occurred to her yet that some of the restrictions may actually discourage buying a digital set top box? Because of these restrictions a box provides no extra benefit to the vast majority of Australians who get good analogue signals and have average sized TVs. Perhaps instead of having a switch off date we could just start progressively blowing up analogue transmitters, reducing signal quality and finally getting those recalcitrant consumers to see the light!

Finally, Big Kim came out and topped them all today. He wants the Australian Government to build a fibre optic network across the country. Telstra recently estimated that this would cost a whopping $30 billion. Some might say that the network is a natural monopoly and the Government should pay for it. But the fact is that no one knows if fibre is the best for Australia. It's a big, sparse country and other telco networks such as wireless, ADSL2+ and satellite might be much more cost-effective. And, these alternative networks also provide competition which reduces the 'monopoly' of fibre anyway. Personally, I don't want Big Kim taking on these risks with MY money, especially given his track record on telcos.

In sum, Governments should stop telling people how to spend their money by providing them with the latest technological craze. Consumers are much better judges of what they need and instead of spending money on 'grand visions' it should be returned to the people.


Matt Johnson said...

The regulations have at least contributed to the uniquely Australian real life soap opera of afternoon television proportions: Kerry Stokes v. the world. Perhaps the Minister could spend the money saved on the digital set top boxes paying damages for conspiracy to stokes and 7. Or perhaps pay T.V. could be made tax deductible, so as to transfer part of the cost to the average taxpayer.

kidding of course.

Trevor Hohn said...

Yes I very much agree with you. I think it is a great idea to help people to afford new technology. Sometimes people get trapped in old technology adn the networking benefits mean that we need to get a few over to the new technology so that everyone will follow. Helping people, especially poor people to do that is good public policy.
But I do take exception to your point about tech good and poor people. I don't blame you for it, you're not very experienced in real life affairs, that's all. You need to learn some real life affairs before you comment about those things. I hope that helps with your problems.

But anyway, yes its true that new tvs etc don't put food on the table. But think of it this way. A poor person with a tv and no food is better than a person with nothing at all!!