TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: NBN lost in translation

Despite a recent favourable poll, support for the NBN is still at 2010 levels and if Labor loses the next election that may not be enough to save the network.

Technology Spectator

Lost in translation

The NBN has managed to steer clear of any major potholes this week and if anything NBN Co boss Mike Quigley and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy would be quite pleased with the latest poll that suggests the public is warming to the idea of a nationwide broadband network.

However, given the fiasco unravelling in Canberra, with the Labor party seemingly keen on ripping itself to shreds, there will be more than a few nervous souls out there who fear for the network. A regime change in Canberra now looks more possible than ever and the fact is we still don’t know what Tony Abbott & Co have in store for the NBN. By the same token, we don’t have any information on any contingency plans that NBN Co might have for a change in government.

The Essential Research survey released earlier this week said that 56 per cent of the population was in favour of the NBN, up from the 54 per cent figure reported in April 2011. On face value that’s a great result but a closer inspection of the numbers reveals a somewhat different picture.

Current support for the NBN is exactly where it was in September 2010 while opposition to the project has ticked up from 18 per cent in 2010 to 25 per cent. The thing with surveys and polls is that you can spin the numbers anyway you like to get to the conclusion of your choosing and for me the data suggest stagnation rather than real growth. The NBN battlelines are still pretty much where they were in 2010 and that’s a bad look for both the federal government and the opposition.

The opposition is hell-bent on keeping its alternative to the NBN under lock and key and the government has only recently got its act together with regards to spreading the NBN message. With NBN Co working furiously to get the rollout done as quickly as possible it hasn’t been paying too much attention to marketing the benefits of the network, while the government has by and large depended on the media to sell the project to the masses. The problem for Conroy & Co is that after spending so much time trumpeting the soundness of the NBN business model they are now finding it difficult to shift gears.

What’s interesting is that there are some in the Labor party who believe that going hard on the social benefits angle could undermine the premise that the NBN is about telco sector reform. That attitude is regrettable because the NBN is a lot bigger than splitting Telstra and faster internet for punters. It has the potential to be a game changer for the entire Australian economy, but everyday Australians are still trapped in a cycle of headlines that, depending on their political persuasions, either reinforce their support or foment more opposition.

As for the opposition, it is perfectly satisfied with the current state of affairs. Simply because it allows flexibility with regards to what course of action it will take with the NBN once it comes to power. Saying anything before that would lock it into a path that could prove to be too difficult to navigate and actually hurt the budget bottom line. On top of that, I would suggest that not everyone in the opposition is in the same boat when it comes to Australia’s broadband future. With Labor seemingly in self-destruct mode I wouldn’t be surprised if Turnbull and Paul Fletcher have a newfound sense of urgency with regards to giving the opposition’s threadbare broadband plan more substance.

Where do the states stand?

Another important angle to the political story is that when it comes to state Liberal governments, they are more than happy to extol the virtues of the NBN as the need arises. An example of that is the deal struck between West Australian state-owned electricity company Horizon Power and NBN Co. According to The West Australian, Horizon is going to help install NBN Co's cables in Karratha. While state energy minister Peter Collier says that the deal is in no way a vote of approval for the NBN, the reality is that these are exactly the sort of infrastructure benefits the NBN will bring and state leaders are more than happy to subtly work around the dictates from Canberra when it is to their advantage. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Victoria where it wasn’t that long ago it was full of praise for the NBN and just how it would revolutionise the tech sector in the state.When the tangible benefits of the NBN are clear to see it’s hard to toe the party line and I wonder what the state governments would have to say if Tony Abbott did decide to scrap the project?

Regulatory slow dance

Apart from the political dimension, NBN’s fate has been locked in a regulatory purgatory with the ACCC, NBN Co, Telstra and its rivals all locked in a slow embrace. Whether it’s Telstra’s structural separation undertaking or NBN Co’s special access undertaking and wholesale broadband agreement, the torturous manoeuvring of the telcos and NBN Co has ensured glacial progress. As far as the telcos are concerned the current undertaking put forward by NBN Co with regards to pricing and commercial terms is wholly inadequate when it comes to regulatory oversight. NBN Co has, for its part, utilised a combination of compromise and bluster to hold the line and the comments to the ACCC maintain the status quo. Unsurprisingly, NBN Co says that the SAU and the WBA in their current forms strengthen the ACCC’s regulatory supervision. Is that going to placate the telcos? Not a chance, and the dance will continue until the regulator finally makes its decision sometime mid-year.

NewSat's satellite grumble

Finally, the $620 million satellite deal continues to make waves, albeit very small ones. The opposition clearly isn’t going waste its time on the issue anymore but that hasn’t stopped listed satellite player NewSat from voicing its discontent. The company’s CEO and founder Adrian Ballintine has told Commsday in no uncertain terms that its planned Ka-band Jabiru satellites could provide adequate capacity to service NBN Co’s needs at a fraction of the cost. Ballintine’s indignant tone is a bit intriguing because my initial understanding was that the Jabiru satellites may still have a role to play in NBN Co’s satellite plan. A NewSat spokesman told Technology Spectator earlier this month that the "door was still open” for talks and Loral was actually a good fit for what NBN Co was looking for. NewSat is a good company that is on its way to becoming a much bigger player in the satellite game and Ballintine’s criticism is unlikely to change anything. However, the harsh criticism is certainly at odds with the company’s initial reaction to the news.