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The day before the 2010 Federal election, JOHN HARRIS delves beneath the soporific slogans and penny-pinching platitudes offered by the major parties for Australia's technology future.

I still haven’t figured out how to cast my vote tomorrow.

On one hand is a party that wants a massively expensive superfast National Broadband Network (NBN) that it will hobble by mandating an ineffective Internet filter.

On the other is a party that opposes the filter, but proposes to replace the NBN with a patchwork of broadband technologies than may fetter Australia’s communications for the next few decades.

Although technology is only one dimension of my electoral dilemma, it epitomises the disappointing political discourse that has dogged our democracy for the past five weeks.

While there are valid arguments both for building the NBN and for dumping it, neither party has offered more than soporific slogans or penny-pinching platitudes to justify their policies. Julia Gillard’s promises about “virtual GPs” is a belated attempt to put some meat on the NBN bones.

At the heart of this conundrum is the NBN, Labor’s $43 billion Fibre to the Home network that promises 100 megabit per second Internet access for more than 90 per cent of the population.

The first stage of the NBN is already rolling out in Tasmania although it will take another eight years to complete.

Pitched as a nation-building initiative, the digital equivalent of the Snowy River scheme, Labor’s vision of building a national fibre network is a big one.

Whether it justifies its $43 billion price tag from the public purse requires some complex economic modelling plus a fairly big leap of faith by the Government into Australia’s online future.

If correct, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy will be remembered as the man who initiated the 21st century version of the railways in the 19th century and the phone network in the 20th century.

If the NBN numbers don’t work out, then Australia may end up with what former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull has labelled “a white elephant”.

The Liberals want to ditch the NBN for a patchwork of technologies that will allow us to get through the next decade, but not far beyond.

While it’s not a bad concept, Tony Abbott’s network solves a different problem to the “future-proof” NBN: It simply takes broadband off the table as an immediate concern.

His hybrid $6 billion network, which one industry expert suggests may require a wireless tower on every city block to deliver 100 meg-per-second speeds, is likely to run out of puff after a decade or so.

That means, after a two or three term Liberal Government, funding a future fibre network becomes someone else’s problem.

As a parent, the NBN would win my vote if the ALP was not wedded to its nonsensical Internet filter.

Ostensibly, this filter aims to protect kids from pornographic and other rotten content on the Internet.

The problem is that it won’t work as planned. As an example, this online video http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/08/05/dodgingthefilter/ shows five easy ways to subvert the planned filter without great technical expertise.

All it will achieve is making parents complacent when their kids are online.

Yet the filter is expected to slow down Internet performance – both now and in the post-NBN world – while forcing the cost of the filter on to us, the customers.

Putting the feckless filter aside, the choice comes down to questions of cost and capability: Is the NBN bang worth 43 billion bucks? \

John Harris is managing director of Impress Media Australia. Email jharris@impress.com.au.

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