Avoiding a NBN witchhunt

The Coalition government has hit the ground running on the NBN but with the strategic review almost at the halfway mark, how much of it will be truly business and how much will be political?

There has certainly been a flurry of activity around the NBN since the Coalition took over government. As foreshadowed before the election the government has set up several reviews that should provide the right basis upon which to take decisions regarding the future of the NBN. It also announced that until the reviews were finalised it would be ‘business as usual’ for NBN Co in regard to all work that was presently under way.

It appointed Ziggy Switkowski as the chair and interim CEO of NBN Co, as well as three other high profile industry experts

It had also indicated that it did not accept the inclusion of the design phase of the NBN as appears in the previous government’s definition of ‘NBN areas under construction’. So that saw half a million houses scrapped from their ‘guarantee’ of receiving an FttP connection.

It also took the very unusual step of issuing a letter from the government to accompany NBN Co’s annual report, in which it questioned some of the elements of the report.

Most of this was expected in one way or another; and, while it all happened within the context of a barrage of attacks on NBN Co, its leadership and its strategic plans in the run-up to the election, it makes total sense conducting reviews at certain intervals of such a significant program as the NBN.

But the question remains – how much of the review will be truly business and how much will be political? Given the very harsh words that have been spoken in the past there is a fear in the market that the new government is conducting the review on the basis of what they see as the negative elements of the work done so far. The hope however, is that it will not be a witch hunt but instead that the review will build on the positive work done by NBN Co so far.

If the negative approach is taken the question will then be how much of the review will, in fact, be independent – if everything is perceived as negative then any review that is conducted will mostly likely confirm that position. An approach like that would make it very difficult to conduct a truly independent review.

Also there is no agenda for industry participation, submissions, etc. While it is understandable that the government wants to move fast – as it has promised – this should not be done at the cost of transparency.

There are, however, some balancing factors that indicate a more impartial outcome. First of all, the NBN is now this government’s problem; and, secondly, 70 per cent of the population is in favour of it. So if they make a mess of things – creating a digital divide, delivering a sub-standard infrastructure, not delivering on their promises, etc – then the government will have a problem at the next election, which will take place only three years from now.

Also Telstra, the industry and the ACCC will all have to agree, in one way or another, with the direction the government proposes to take. Any major changes to the current arrangements are going to create major challenges for the government in getting approval for its version. So they will probably try to stick as closely as possible to the current arrangements – not necessarily from choice, but because major changes will result in major delays.

Another positive is that the Communications Minister MalcolmTurnbull is one of the most telecommunications-savvy politicians anywhere in the world. He has also confirmed on several occasions that FttP is the best solution, and that it is the end solution. He is one of our most reputable politicians and has proved himself to be someone who can be trusted, and someone who is prepared to stand up for issues he believes in.

So, from this personal point of view, he will have the best interest of the national broadband network at heart. However, this needs to be looked at within the context of politics, and that is when most people, including myself, are more sceptical.

But all politicians have to be accountable to their voters, and this means people power. So it is also up to the people to express their opinions on all of this. The viral petition that, within days after the election, attracted close to 300,000 signatures, plus the follow-up advertising campaign, is an example of such action. And several communities affected by the government’s recent cancellation of their FttP prospects are in the process of organising meetings to decide what action they could take to secure FttP to their communities.

The latter is linked to the social and economic importance of the NBN for digital productivity, local development, healthcare, education and so on. These are factors that are still not taken into account by the government. The Minister has indicated that he likes an NBN based on FttP but believes that Australia cannot afford it. He thinks the current plan is too expensive. I would turn that around and ask what country can afford not to have FttP infrastructure. It is sad that, after all the years that have passed and the different governments that have been involved, these social and economic are issues are still not taken seriously by our political leaders.

In the end the NBN is the critical infrastructure we need for our country. Any modern digital economy requires an infrastructure that has lots of capacity; is robust, reliable and secure; has low latency; is ubiquitous; and, above all, is affordable for its users.

Any review of the cost of the NBN should be looked at in the context of Australia’s needs for its digital infrastructure future.

Paul Budde is the managing director of BuddeComm, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy company, which includes 45 national and international researchers in 15 countries. 

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