The NBN debate took a rather unexpected turn this week as opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull’s attempts to shed further light on the Coalition's NBN were somewhat overshadowed by the talk of Huawei potentially returning to take part in the NBN.
The Chinese giant was given the cold shoulder by the Australian government earlier this year after the ASIO flagged potential security considerations. The decision wasn’t a surprise for most in the industry, given that Huawei has copped a lot of similar flak in the US. In fact it wasn’t even a surprise to Huawei, which was privately aware of the expulsion since late last year.
However, technical proficiency has never been an issue in this equation and Huawei’s exclusion has always had more to do with geopolitics than technology.
The real surprise, as evidenced by Independent MP Rob Oakeshott’s reaction, is how and why the Coalition is so keen to bring Huawei back to the table.
However, it might be worthwhile to bear in mind that Turnbull’s statement isn’t a definitive pledge to overrule the existing decision. All he has said is that the Coalition will review the security intelligence that informed the Gillard government’s decision. This isn’t actually a new position and Turnbull made a similar commitment earlier this month in his speech at the American Chamber of Commerce lunch.
So will a review of this information, if and when it occurs, deliver salvation to Huawei?
The simple answer to that is no. That is unless a Coalition government is willing to rock the boat as far as our connections with Washington DC are involved. Despite its successes across the globe Huawei and China’s ZTE for that matter just can’t catch a break in the US. In fact, ZTE is set to take part in a US congressional hearing next month linked to an investigation of alleged Chinese espionage threats to US telecommunications infrastructure. The process will also see the deputy chairman of Huawei, Ken Hu, testify at a hearing that would explore their companies' relationships with the Chinese authorities, among other things.
This type of intense scrutiny comes despite news that Huawei has spent over $820,000 in lobbying efforts in the US in the first half of 2012. Since October of last year, Huawei has reportedly hired six firms to represent the company in Washington D.C., including a former senator, two experienced Republican campaign aides, and a former Democratic chief of staff.
It’s very similar to the game plan being followed in Australia and unfortunately this is the price Huawei has to pay for its perceived connection with the military apparatus in Beijing.
A move by Canberra to give Huawei a chance, especially when vetting process is still underway in the US, would cause acute embarrassment to all involved. Working on the NBN would provide Huawei an extra dollop of credibility, which could make US recalcitrance unfeasible.
It’s conceivable that Huawei may manage to find some traction in the US which would certainly make things a lot easier for the Coalition. However, for now Huawei will look at Turnbull’s olive branch as a small step in the right direction and nothing more.
Turnbull's ode to pragmatism
Back to the domestic NBN politicking, the shadow communications and broadband minister is charging ahead with his plan to give the average voter a clearer picture what lies in store once the Gillard government in dethroned. This picture is increasingly gravitating away from a Fibre-to-the-Node (FttN) network to one with a greater emphasis on picking the right technology for the right situation. That means a combination of FttN and Fibre-to-the-Home (FttH) as the need arises.
As Turnbull pointed out this week to The Australian Financial Review, he is not a technology zealot. All he is really concerned about is to ensure that better broadband gets to those who need it the most, as quickly and cheaply as possible.
“I am totally agnostic and in favour of whatever works. Whatever works and whatever is most cost-effective is what I want to pursue,” Turnbull told the paper
“If fibre to the node can deliver more than adequate broadband for the vast majority of people, at a quarter of the cost, and take a third as long to do, then you would be nuts not to do it. That is the bottom line.”
While Turnbull’s pragmatism is worthy of applause perhaps its appeal would be more far reaching if he was just little more forthcoming with a few more pertinent details. However, as I have said earlier, the mission right now isn’t to get bogged down by the technicalities, but to instead present an image to the public that shows the Coalition holding the keys to a faster broadband future.