Dishing the dirt on Coalition's NBN

The latest parliamentary committee hearing on the NBN throws open the tantalising prospect of finding out what NBN Co has to say about the Coalition’s NBN cost and delivery assumptions.

The parliamentary committee overseeing the NBN is facing the unenviable task of making sense of the barrage of information headed its way in today’s hearing. Apart from listening to how and why the current fibre rollout has slipped behind schedule, there now lies the tantalising prospect of finding out what NBN Co has to say about the Coalition’s NBN policy

With the committee hearings designed to check the progress of the NBN rollout, this meeting could potentially be significant to the NBN story, especially if NBN Co boss Mike Quigley decides to throw caution to wind and attack the viability of the Coalition policy.

Shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has no doubt enjoyed the limelight since the policy was launched, despite the brickbats from his bevy of detractors. Not only has Turnbull picked up the credit for singlehandedly steering the Coalition towards a cogent, albeit limited, NBN policy, he has also managed to get stuck into the gold-plated economics of Labor’s fibre to the home (FTTH) approach.

Mind you, none of this means a thing in long run. However, it does help the Coalition sell a viable, pragmatic message to the public before the election. While many have already anointed an Abbott government to dethrone Labor, the Coalition is justifiably not leaving the NBN on the backburner.

As mentioned earlier this week, the hard work for Turnbull begins post-election, when the Coalition will have to start delivering on its promises. Now, there will be the issue of being burdened by Labor’s NBN legacy, and expect Turnbull to voice this sentiment ad nauseam once the federal election is done and dusted. However, at some point, possibly before the 2016 federal elections, that message will start to lose its resonance with the public.    

For the time being, Turnbull has deliberately presented a simple, easily digestible policy, one that spruiks achievability over technology and costs over sufficiency. Presumably, the nitty gritty will be worked out after the election but Mike Quigley has a chance to make things difficult for Turnbull, provided he has the temerity to openly challenge the costs and the timetables outlined by the Coalition.

Turnbull has made it abundantly clear that a refreshed NBN Co board will have no room for Quigley, so perhaps here’s an opportunity for him to even the score. The Coalition’s NBN will be rolled out under the auspices of NBN Co and who better than Quigley to lay down a dose of reality.

The biggest threat to Turnbull’s NBN is a policy paralysis, courtesy of a convoluted regulatory process, and a fibre to the cabinet rollout stymied by the same civil construction issues that have plagued Labor.

For all its pragmatism, the Coalition’s policy provides few details on how they will achieve the delivery of their cheaper outcome. As telco analyst Paul Budde pointed out in a recent blog, maintaining the old copper network will become an increasingly expensive proposition. Meanwhile, working with an old network means there will be a fair share on unknowns and unfortunate ‘surprises’ that will start hurting both the cost and time equation.

Budde is by no means the only analyst to voice his concerns. Many analysts, even those sympathetic to Turnbull’s NBN, are concerned about execution risks and the timetables set in place.

At the very least, Quigley can use the committee hearings as a platform to inform the public of the very real risks faced by the Coalition’s technically inferior broadband solution. It would certainly be very useful for an embattled Gillard government as it counts down to the election, which could leverage the doubts raised at the hearing to question the veracity of Turnbull’s promises and the Coalition’s long-term broadband vision.