The NBN strategic review, to be delivered this week, will be the first tangible point of reference from where the Coalition’s NBN aspirations will take shape. And the lead up to this point has been made particularly thorny, by a ferociously partisan Senate Select Committee and a leaked document that casts doubts on the financial viability of a Fibre to the Node (FTTN) heavy NBN and its delivery timetable.
The draft document, revealed by Fairfax Media, reinforces the long-running rumblings of the Coalition’s detractors that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s 2016 deadline was ambitious from the outset.
Turnbull’s response to the leaked analysis has been predictably obtuse, labelling it an outdated document with little or no credibility; a partisan attack designed to “muddy the waters”.
“The truth is that we will know what is actually going on in the NBN very soon, because there is a big strategic review underway at the moment, being overseen by the board of NBN Co,” Turnbull told Channel Nine.
“It’s a very objective study and that will be produced shortly.”
Well, the review lands on the table today and the message coming out of NBN Co executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski last week at the Senate Select Committee was less than enthusiastic.
“We are not on target to deliver anything at this stage,” Dr Switkowski said.
Turnbull is right about one thing. When it comes to the NBN, political considerations continue to trump any meaningful discussion on Australia’s broadband future.
Shifting goalposts and fudging numbers
While Labor and the Coalition continue to pivot around their ideological differences, neither is willing to concede that delivering a NBN, whether it’s Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) or FTTN, is not simply a matter of setting timetables or debating the virtues of copper vs fibre.
Speaking of timetables, there’s growing recognition within the Coalition and NBN Co ranks that the 2016 timetable is in serious trouble. There’s simply too much to do and it’s hard to see how NBN Co can soften this blow. The 2019 deadline to have 90 per cent of homes at 50 megabits per second is still achievable but it will require a lot of things to go to plan.
While there is some doubt as to just how much of the recommendations in the strategic review will be revealed to the public, Malcolm Turnbull faces a critical decision, one that could definitively set him apart from his predecessor Stephen Conroy.
If the 2016 timetable is unachievable, then the Coalition would be well served to own up to it.
Moving the goalposts at a later date will only prove to be counterproductive. Shifting deadlines and fudging metrics, a game that Turnbull has so gleefully accused Labor of in the past, must not become a feature of the Coalition NBN.