TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Chasing Turnbull's NBN alternative

The Coalition's rhetoric on the national broadband network may be seamless but details on an alternative are still non-existent.

Technology Spectator

Malcolm Turnbull broke his silence on the Convergence Review at the Australian Broadcasting Summit last month but compensated by imposing a near embargo on comment on the NBN.

At question time he fielded a single request from the floor to say, if elected to government, what the Coalition would do with the NBN as it would be at the time.

First, Turnbull said, "we are not going to tear anything up.  We’ll make use of all the infrastructure that’s been built and paid for, regardless whether the decision to invest in it was wise.”

‘Number two, we will deliver… ensure… that all Australians have access to very fast broadband that is affordable and we will do that sooner than the NBN can deliver and cheaper, both in terms of cost to tax payer and affordability to consumer.’

"There are many problems with the NBN and we can’t turn the clock back. We are stuck with the NBN Co.; we are stuck with the NBN.  The objective is to make it more efficient and, so, that would mean we would use a mix of technologies where ever possible… where appropriate… so you would not run fibre into every house and apartment in Australia.”

"In the unlikely event Labor stayed in government I don’t think they would either, the costs are so crippling and the experience around the world has been to back away from that and look at more cost effective ways of upgrading broadband services.”

Turnbull then turned to the monopoly status of the NBN, citing earlier state monopolies like the railways and their long battle to preserve monopoly rights of carriage of freight against road competition. Having just driven the Hume Highway from Melbourne, I wish the railways had won! But then, without the demands of road freight, it wouldn’t be a dual carriage way.

He suggested the NBN was a step back to the 1950s, an interesting allegation considering the Howard government was frequently accused of exactly the same chronological destination when it came to social policy.

Fortunately for him, Turnbull didn’t take up the example of the telephone network.  It would have been shaky ground and not sustain his argument.  Telephony was managed for almost 90 years by a government monopoly, first the Post Master General’s department and then Telecom.  These monopoly government agencies brought a telephone to 99 per cent of Australia premises. 

The spread of the telephone gave birth to the political idea that access to telecommunication was a right of all citizens.  The old Country Party drove that idea right along.  And, arguably, the fully integrated, modern Australian telephone network would never have been created by a series of private companies and, certainly, not by private companies competing within the same market, even with subsidies to attempt to correct market failure.  Even in the home of capitalism, the United States, the telephone giants negotiated local monopolies to speed the spread of the technology without wasteful competition.

But it was the allegation of massively wasteful monopoly practices the most raised Turnbull’s ire. The failure of the NBN not to use existing HCF and fibre networks as part of both the backbone and the distribution networks of the new service demands a technical not a political explanation. 

‘What species of madness and wastefulness is it’, Turnbull asked rhetorically, ‘to be over-building existing broadband and infrastructure that is perfectly capable of delivering high-speed broadband?’

In conclusion, Turnbull said, we should follow the example of other countries where governments invest in broadband infrastructure only when there has been a market failure, especially in the country.

‘My commitment to you is that if we are returned to government ’ Turnbull concluded ‘we will deliver to you very fast broadband to all Australians, sooner, cheaper from a tax payer point of view and more affordably from a consumer point of view’.

Unfortunately, no one asked what exactly was meant by ‘high speed broadband’?  Once upon a time, modem advertisements said 56 kbs was broadband!

Seamless rhetoric, non-existent detail

Like all of the Opposition’s analysis of the NBN, the rhetoric is seamless, the detail non-existent.

After the address, I drew Turnbull’s attention to the recent figures reported from the FTTH Council meeting on Munich on 14 February.  Lithuania, a small Baltic republic had reached 28.3 per cent fibre to the premises and growing.

‘Is it an appropriate policy for the Opposition to support a position’ I asked ‘which will make Australia inferior to Lithuania in terms of high speed broadband connection?’

‘There isn’t a linear connection between broadband services and economic growth’, Turnbull replied, citing Japan’s recent woeful economic performance. 

‘The reality in Europe, (I’m not going to argue with you about Lithuania) the reality is in most markets… in the major markets, Germany and Britain, two I’m very familiar with, the broadband upgrades are being done on a cost effective basis… [using] technology that’s most effective for the location.  Green fields [are] doing plenty of fibre to the premises, in brown fields… generally VDSL2, fibre to the cabinet.  In Britain BT (British Telecom) is achieving 80 Mbs download and 10 to 20 Mbs upload.  That’s so far in excess of residential requirements it’s obvious.”

‘If you look around the world, what we are doing is without any precedent or counterpart.’

And that was it.  Lawyers go for precedent, political leadership doesn’t need it.

And the question remains, ‘is it an appropriate policy for the opposition to support a position which will make Australia inferior to Lithuania in terms of high-speed broadband connection’ stands unanswered. 

I am not dudding Lithuania, but we can do at least as well.

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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