Matthew Hall June 14, 2012
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. Photo: Louie Douvis
Australia now has its own official visionary.
Senator Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, has collected his Visionary of the Year award from the New York-based Intelligent Community Forum for his work establishing the national broadband network (NBN).
Senator Conroy was in New York city last week to receive the accolade, using the opportunity to level scathing attacks at Telstra which he identified as a major initial obstacle in the project's implementation.
"The challenge for our government was at the time how do we deal with our incumbent Telstra [...] I gave them two options - they could agree to a prospective structural separation over 10 years [...] if they didn't agree they would be banned from buying new mobile spectrum of 4G services. Telstra's management chose to agree to the NBN."
He said the NBN was a central platform to create intelligent communities, despite opposition to the infrastructure project from some quarters.
"We’re embarking on a project to make the whole of our continent an intelligent community. We know the world is watching us. Some wonder why we’re doing it, others wish they could," he said.
The Opposition is against the government's $37 billion fibre-optic plan, arguing a country-wide broadband network could be achieved with a combination of existing technologies for less. But the plan has impressed international observers who see it as a direct result of Senator Conroy's personal work. He was first announced as the recipient of the award in March.
"Believe me, Senator Conroy is redefining the role of government for the modern era," said Louis Zacharilla, co-founder of the ICF, a global think tank that studies the economic and social development of what it calls "the 21st Century community".
"Government doesn't have to be big, it doesn't have to be small, it just has to be smart. He is building the new railroad for all of us through his vision and we will make sure that his words go out to the rest of the world."
Previous award ICF visionary award winners have included the Communications Ministry of Afghanistan and communications ministers from Finland and Mexico.
"I was so impressed by his tenacity and his toughness and his clarity that I could go back to my colleagues and say we have found another one just like us," Zacharilla said.
"He says it very simply, as most visionaries do. Speeds were too slow and prices were too high. You cannot build a competitive economy or new railroad that way.
"What we want at the end of the day is for people to come home at night and go into their apartments or homes and look up what ever they look up and say I'm so glad I live here.
"That is a proposition that is not available to everyone [in the world] and it is not available to everyone in Australia, evidently. Senator Conroy is going to make that happen by building a new railroad."
In his speech, Conroy also said once the fibre-optic network was established, the copper cables would be ripped up. "We'll knock on the door, connect the fibre and take the copper away," he said. Telstra has not yet made a decision whether that will be the case.
But while Conroy is receiving international plaudits he still faces challenges at home with how to best leverage the NBN once it is implemented.
Asked by IT Pro how he planned to tackle the perceived overseas talent drain of Australia's IT professionals and ideas to the US where young entrepreneurs feel their start-ups have a better change of succeeding, Senator Conroy said the issue was a major challenge that government was reluctant to face – at least financially.
"Australia can be terrible at taking great ideas, great developments, and converting them on shore," Senator Conroy said.
"There's a few programs in the private sector but usually what happens when the government tries to get involved is that we get criticised. So there is not a lot of support for government bureaucrats to sit there and say that is a really good [idea] let's fund them – and not those two who are called Amazon and Apple."
A better fit for government, according to Conroy, is IT training. He said a major goal was to especially encourage women to enter the technology sector. University enrolments in ICT have picked up slightly in the past two years but still fall well short of supply.
"Training people is most important on a government level," he said. "The bottom line is that we are not getting enough people into maths and sciences at school. If you want to get the tech sector really beefed up, you have to do more at school.
"But at the moment we have an absolute gender divide on this. We have half the population not interested in going into the sector and we have got to fix that. If we exclude women we will continue to have issues."
Senator Conroy did not outline any specific strategies to achieve this goal.