TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Canberra's pointless NBN ritual

In spite of continued bickering in Canberra over the NBN rollout, there are signs of progress. On another note, is Stephen Conroy a control freak?

Technology Spectator

Futile NBN combat in Canberra

The tiresome spat between Stephen Conroy and the Coalition about – who’s saying what and who’s misleading who – on the NBN was again on display this week, with the communications minister demanding an explicit apology from his opposition counterpart Malcolm Turnbull and the shadow treasurer Joe Hockey. As usual, the source of Conroy’s anger was the Coalition’s insistence on placing an exorbitant price tag on Labor’s NBN. Both Turnbull – and more recently Hockey – have raised the prospect of the NBN costing as much as $100 billion.

The shadow treasurer told the ABC earlier this week that none of the numbers in Labor’s budget papers can be trusted, and that includes the NBN.

"Last year they said there was going to be a $22 billion deficit, it turned out to be a $44 billion deficit. There is not one contractor in Australia that believes the Government is going to roll out its National Broadband Network for $32 billion. Expectations are as high as $60 billion, $70 billion or even $100 billion for the National Broadband Network,” Hockey said.

Of course Conroy isn’t holding his breath on an apology but one has to wonder whether the both the government and the opposition are missing the point with what has become an oft-repeated routine. The Coalition spouts a debatable claim attacking the Labor NBN (the cost, the efficacy of wireless, etc) which is invariably followed by an aggressive retort by Conroy. It’s ritualised warfare that serves no real purpose.

The key thing to remember on the issue of cost is that the Gillard government has put the numbers on the table. Whether they will stick might be open to conjecture but there is a tangible estimate for all to see. The Coalition on the other hand might have a raft of policy ideas, and let’s not forget that survey, but there are no price tags attached.

Tangible progress

Fortunately, the vacuous political shenanigans were also accompanied this week with more positive news on the rollout. Construction for the NBN has now started for 10,500 homes and businesses in Launceston, as well as for another 2,100 premises in Somerset and Binalong Bay in Tasmania, with the state set to be fully connected to the NBN by the end of 2015.

Meanwhile, NBN fibre has also started to roll out in ACT, with more than 135,000 Canberra homes and businesses to be connected by mid-2015.

Elsewhere, things are progressing well on the satellite side of things as well with NBN Co building three new satellite ground stations in Western Australia.

The ground stations will be built and operated in Moonyoonooka near Geraldton, Binduli near Kalgoorlie, and Carnarvon. These three join three other ground stations announced for Bourke and Merimbula in New South Wales, and Geeveston in Tasmania. Together they will be six of the ten ground stations that will take NBN Co’s long-term satellite service to remote corners of Australia.

Conroy's 'red undies' - hubris writ large?

Stephen Conroy’s call for an apology may have been business as usual in Canberra but the communications minister actually made a far more pertinent observation in a presentation he gave for an American audience at Columbia University in New York City.

While the presentation covered a number of issues it was Conroy’s ‘red undies’ remark that garnered the majority of media’s attention. The minister’s moment of ribaldry may have been nothing more than showboating on his part but it does, at the very least, gives one a healthy perspective on the current state of telco regulation in the country.

This is what Conroy told those gathered at the event.

"The regulation of telecommunications powers in Australia is exclusively federal. That means I am in charge of spectrum auctions, and if I say to everyone in this room ‘if you want to bid in our spectrum auction you’d better wear red underpants on your head’, I’ve got some news for you. You’ll be wearing them on your head,” said the minister.

"I have unfettered legal power.”

Now, one shouldn’t be entirely surprised by the bluster, some may choose to say hubris, on display here by Conroy. After all, a great degree of this chutzpah was instrumental in Conroy’s decision to structurally separate Telstra at all costs.

As far the audience was concerned there were some who obviously liked what they heard. US telecommunications analyst Fred R Goldstein was one such listener and said in a blog post that while Conroy’s statement may seem outrageous when taken out of context, it does paint an accurate picture of the regulatory environment in Australia.

That picture is one in which Canberra is indeed unfettered by state regulation and that’s a luxury that many other nations don’t have. However, not everyone takes comfort in that fact. CommsDay’s Graham Lynch presents a cogent argument on this point in his piece this week. The following is an extract; we recommend you read the entire article.

"Notwithstanding all the general Commonwealth powers over telecoms, the minister has one very important tool to deploy over the incumbent telco: his ability to decree on what terms it must comply with NBN dictates in order to be allowed to bid for spectrum and remain in the pay TV business.

Add in the various other legislated powers which crimp competition against the NBN as well as an apparently unlimited chequebook to over build and compensate the chosen two, and yes, we have a minister who can best be characterised by his omnipresence across most industry activities.”

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