Coalition NBN's bitter aftertaste

The Coalition’s NBN is middle-management response to the future needs of Australia and looks set to enshrine a digital divide. We deserve better.

The Coalition’s NBN may have been dubbed a lemon but a firm, fleshy, lemon is a damn sight better than the desiccated husk of a broadband policy it took to the last election, under the then communications spokesman, an even dryer Senator Nick Minchin.

Let’s face it. The Coalition’s communication thinking is backward. It remains way behind even little Lithuania’s broadband policy where 28.3 per cent of homes and building were directly connected to the fibre optic network at the end of 2011. And in Kuala Lumpur, new apartment developments are being advertised with a 1,000 megabit internet connection. To Turnbull’s credit, however, the baby is not going out with the bath water and finally we have some details and costing to discuss.

You can choose to read the 12 page summary, the 18 page policy or the 36 page background paper, and the more you read the more clear it becomes that this policy is still a work in progress: there are a lot of loose ends, unquantified assumptions and unqualified optimism. You will also note that the longer the document, the worse the proof reading.

The best the Coalition offers Australia is an NBN that is slower, cheaper and might be delivered sooner.

The policy relies heavily on serving the majority of Australians with a fibre to the node (FTTN) facility that will deliver speeds comparable with the fibre to the premises (FTTP) strategy of Labor’s intention only if you live within a very short distance of your local node, and you have a first class, modern twisted copper pair connecting your phone to the local exchange.

Even then the policy makes some highly optimistic statements about improvements in data speeds on the copper pair telephone network, such as ‘Data transfer rates over short copper lines provided by FTTN are already close to 100 megabits per second in any case, and will continue to climb as technology advances.’

‘Short’ here is measured in metres but there is a more crucial limit. The parallel capacity and series inductance of a telephone line are as insuperable to high data transmission as the speed of light is to dreams of inter-galactic space travel.

At present that copper connection is most likely owned by Telstra, which the Coalition assumes it will give up for the same price it negotiated with NBN Co. to migrate its customers to optic fibre connected phones. That negotiation took several years and renewed negotiation could blow out the Coalition’s delivery date of 2019. 

Then there is the abandon with which the terms high speed, superfast and super high speed are thrown around. Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, announcing the policy even described the proposed NBN as faster: he meant ‘delivered sooner’.

Enshrining a digital divide

The policy would enshrine communications disadvantage, the digital divide in the Australian community.

The policy acknowledges that 22 per cent of the premises in Australia (2,802,000) will enjoy high speed FTTP connections, a further 77 per cent (8,968,000) will have FTTN while those in more remote areas will connect by fixed wireless (572,000, four per cent, or satellite (372,000, three per cent). The latter two services are the same as planned under the present NBN.

So, under this policy, the digital divide will be a fact the nation has to live with, enshrined in government policy. History has shown, be it roads, railways or telecommunication, economic development follows technology. This policy implicitly limits the potential of Australian communities, creates digital ghettos.

And by abandoning the equalisation of pricing of wholesale services, it also ensures that country folk will pay more for similar services than city folk. The silence of the National Party, occasionally given to defending the interests of its constituents, is deafening.

But the most egregious claim is that the cost of Labor NBN could blow out to $94.1 billion. The figure is not plucked out of the air but arrived at by a laborious 12 page series of speculations about what could go wrong with the NBN roll-out and then assuming that they all go wrong together.

Strangely, no one seems inclined the challenge this piece of hyper-fiction.

Thus the argument goes that if wholesale revenue per user grows at an annual 3.5 per cent rather than 9.2 per cent per year between FY2012 and FY2021; if one in four households opts for wireless connections by 2028; if the average capital cost of fibre is $3,600 per premise in established areas, not $2,400 as anticipated in the NBN’s corporate plan; and the remaining NBN rollout, actually takes 12 years not eight as scheduled, then the cost might be $94.1 billion.

Yep, and North Korea might plunge the world into nuclear Armageddon.

A middle management solution

The Coalition's case has been aided by the less than inspiring performance of the government and NBN Co. The first NBN corporate plan set goals that were unrealistic and had to be substantially amended. The second set of goals is yet to be met and so some of the Coalition suppositions, such as a delay in completion are not without substance. However, using that to justify a second-rate solution shows an egregious lack of vision from the Coalition.

And that is the true failing of the Coalition's broadband policy. It sees the future as a series of problems to be solved at least cost, not a challenge to be realised for national advancement, as earlier generations of politicians have seen ideas like migration and the Snowy Mountains scheme.

It allows no joy, no progress, no advancement of the nation being driven by the nation’s interests and needs, with government as the nation’s agent of change. It's a middle-management response to the future needs of Australia, not the response of political leaders. 

Australia deserves better of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, but is unlikely to get it.

Dr Vincent O'Donnell is the media policy editor at Screen Hub and an executive producer at Arts Alive. This article was first published in Screen Hub. Republished with permission.

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