Fiddling with 1GB while the NBN burns?

As Malcolm Turnbull keeps technical issues at the centre of the broadband speed debate, the absence of an NBN Co rollout update is gaping.

The Rudd government has moved swiftly to shut down debate on a range of issues in past weeks – boats and carbon through hasty policy backflips, and debt-and-deficit and the economy by the Economic Statement released two weeks ago. 

But one debate it has not shut down is on the costs and benefits of the national broadband network. In a lively shouting match on the ABC’s Lateline last night, Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who is also communications minister, did his best to stop Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull putting the NBN back on the agenda. 

The technical side of the NBN is often used by both sides of the debate to draw fire away from the central issues. And so it was last night, with host Emma Alberici somehow leading both Turnbull and Albanese into heated argument on whether or not householders need 1Gbps download speeds. 

That’s all wasted breath. The real debate belongs lower down the speed scale, with Turnbull insisting that around 100Mbps is fast enough, and that under his fibre-to-the-node plan that will be available via ‘revolutionary’ VDSL vectoring technology that didn’t exist when Labor planned the all-fibre network. 

Albo, who is not as confident with this brief as former minister Stephen Conroy, should nonetheless know that while 1Gbps is possible on the signal/fibre set-up being used by the NBN, it was only really added as an afterthought – at the last election Labor was happy to use the 100Mbps speed, and has only focused on 1Gbps since the vectoring technology become available. 

But look, now I’m getting too technical. 

There was a much more important point skated over by the eloquent Mr Albanese – the latest incarnation of the NBN Co corporate plan should be ready to release to a voting public eager to see what a success the rollout has been. But it isn’t. 

Turnbull pushed Albanese a little on this point, but Albo’s years as leader of the House of Representatives have perfected his fluff and bluster skills to the point that he shouted Turnbull down quite successfully.

Alberici also pushed Albanese on this point, but then headed off into the 1Gb debate again when no answer was forthcoming – Albo failed to say whether the report would be released before the election, and essentially shrugged his shoulders by saying that when the NBN Co board hands it over, he’d run it through a proper cabinet process and release it. 

Isn’t life a bitch! He wants to show us the data, but if they don’t hand it over, who’s he to speed things up – he’s only the communications minister!

Turnbull’s big promise to voters is that his not-so-fast network will be built much more quickly. Yes, it’s a lot cheaper too, but NBN subscribers are showing that cost is less important to them than shaking off our 41st-best-in-world broadband status as quickly as possible. 

If the new incarnation of the corporate plan shows delays that contradict Labor’s claim that the early-phase problems have all been sorted out, Kevin Rudd will be fighting another fire in a policy area he thought would take care of itself.

Meanwhile, the Financial Review reports another intriguing development. Former communications minister Stephen Conroy is not only failing to put his shoulder to the wheel to get his arch enemy Kevin Rudd re-elected prime minister, but has decided to spend the next two weeks at an internet conference in the US. 

That looks suspiciously like a man who fully intends to be shadow communications minister in a Bill Shorten-led opposition (this columnist is not convinced the 'split' between Conroy and Shorten is as real as most believe – see Tricky Bill Shorten's plan is on track, June 27). Got to keep the broadband knowledge up to date, especially if you know your current leader won’t win the election.

On that point, this columnist was expecting, very soon, for some destructive leaking to begin to stop Kevin Rudd winning the September 7 election. But given Labor’s slipping primary vote, perhaps we’ll just see one or two more Gillard loyalists jet off abroad. That should be enough to sink the ship. 

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