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Disconnected competition

By Mark Christensen - posted Friday, 18 August 2006


It’s short odds Sol Trujillo and his amigos are agitating the Federal Government with their recent decision to abandon Telstra’s proposed national fibre network.

What critics overlook, however, is that this situation is not of their making. We want Telstra to be mature and act in our collective best interests, yet the system it has been asked to work within is seriously flawed.

As Telstra executive Phil Burgess recently pointed out, the telecommunications policy framework is “confused, conflicted and counter-productive”. The source of this conflict lies in the incompatibility of competition with the unique oneness of networks.

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Telecommunications is a network business like electricity, water, rail and other forms of transport. It is defined by its inter-connectedness.

You know what it’s like on the road. An accident or hold-up at some distant point in the network can affect you through complicated flow-on effects right through the system. Similarly, there is no advantage in removing a notorious bottleneck if the one down the street is left festering. To operate efficiently, networks must be managed in a holistic fashion that has regard for all actual and potential users.

Though I may never actually use it, I benefit from the fact I can telephone someone in Longreach or Tennant Creek. Networks also have a common good. I take heart in knowing people in remote areas have a similar level of service. The shared commitment bonds us as a society.

Putting values on these benefits is difficult. How much am I willing to contribute towards Telstra maintaining the existing network or rolling out a new fibre option to every Australian?

In the old days, this balance was struck behind closed doors between politicians and the Commissioner of the railway, electricity or telephone monopoly. We had to assume decisions were made in the interests of all.

The post-National Competition Policy world is both better and worse. On a positive note, third party access has pushed network owners to improve their performance, while greater transparency means investments are less likely to be politically motivated.

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The downside is competition draws us all away from the big picture that is so vital for co-ordinated development of key infrastructure on behalf of the community.

If Telstra takes the view that all Australians are “in this together”, it would assume all users have the same effective cost to serve. It would look beyond the fact stand-alone costs to supply a person in Brisbane are much lower than those in regional Queensland. The benefits of a truly integrated approach would be more vital than the efficiency effects of applying individual user pays.

Mandated competition, however, demands access prices that give others a chance to compete. For this to happen, regulators must set access prices below what an efficient network business needs to cover the cost of serving all its users. If it didn’t, no one could compete with an efficient network owner and they’d be out of a job!

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First published in The Courier-Mail on August 10, 2006.



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About the Author

Mark is a social and political commentator, with a background in economics. He also has an abiding interest in philosophy and theology, and is trying to write a book on the nature of reality. He blogs here.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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