TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: NBN stakes and secrets

The latest NBN busines plan needs to convince that the rollout is finally on track. Meanwhile, is NBN Co’s use of exemptions in the FOI rules contrary to public interest?

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Technology Spectator

As NBN watchers wait for the latest business plan for the project  to make its appearance, there is more news on what the Coalition has up its sleeves for the NBN. It’s a topic that generates plenty of conversation but it is safe to say that a full picture of the Coalition’s alternative is unlikely to be seen until the federal election is at our doorsteps.

For the moment, the Coalition is sticking to its strategy of delivering a NBN quicker and cheaper than the Labor government. Will the Fibre-to-the-Node approach deliver broadband services faster to the public? No argument there. Will it be cheaper? Yes, but not as much the Coalition would like us to believe. But will it be best solution for Australia’s future broadband needs? This is where things get a bit tricky.

At some point FTTN will have to give way to Fibre-to-the-Home, but as far as the Coalition is concerned that’s an issue that can be tackled later down the road. This upgrade will be difficult but for now it would prefer the pubic to pay heed to what the analysts have to say.

Analysts such as Goldman Sachs’ Raymond Tong, who has reportedly informed clients that the Coalition alternative will be broadly positive to listed internet service providers, including Telstra.  

According to Tong, the Coalition’s alternative can be rolled out faster and it will be cheaper. Although, there will be substantial regulatory and legislative challenges along the way.

These views are broadly consistent with what analysts have had to say so far and frankly there’s not a lot more they can say.

It’s not about speed

The FttN vs FttH debate will continue to do the rounds at least until there is a new government in Canberra. But perhaps a more pertinent issue should be the one raised in the report by Britain's House of Lords communications committee. According to the report, perhaps governments are too obsessed with speed when the real imperative should be about delivering access to all.

The report, a culmination of a wide-ranging, six-month investigation of the broadband rollout in the UK, said that the UK government is preoccupied with speed rather than "focusing on access and the imperative of creating a 'future proof' national network which is built to last.”

The committee also says that the choice between fibre and wireless technologies "will naturally be driven by local demand and market forces.”

"Certainly, fibre will represent a premium choice, but where resources cannot stretch to it, wireless links will provide a more affordable option.”

What bearing this report has on our NBN depends on which side of the fence one decides to sit on.

A news report on The Australian alluded that there are some clear lessons here for Labor. However, let’s not forget that the committee’s main recommendation is to think of the broadband network as a key part of national infrastructure and a strategic, national asset.

It’s a viewpoint that many in Australia are also trying to push. The NBN shouldn’t be just about telco sector reform and it shouldn’t be about petty politics. There is a lot more at stake here.

Slipping targets and a testing sechedule

Admittedly, this sort of doe-eyed idealism falls away very quickly in the face of political pragmatism and the swords will come out soon enough, once the latest version of NBN Co's corporate plan is released.

With the $36 billion price tag expected to tick up and connection forecasts revised down, the opposition will look to get stuck into the document. The government will counter with its usual set of justifications – lengthy regulatory delays, bad data on Telstra infrastructure, etc – all of which is well and good, but the document needs needs to provide some indication that the rollout, which is already nine-months behind schedule, isn’t falling further behind.

For NBN watchers nothing would be more 'pleasing' than that.

Too many secrets?  

Finally, it’s good to see more questions being asked about the impenetrable veil of secrecy that NBN Co chooses to mask its commercial dealings. The latest has come from Dr Denis Muller, a senior research fellow at the centre for advanced journalism at University of Melbourne, who has told Fairfax papers that NBN Co’s use of exemptions in the freedom of information rules is "contrary to public interest.”

The comment comes as Fairfax became the latest media organisation to feel the brunt of NBN Co’s wall of silence. Seeking details of NBN Co’s two-year relationship with investment bank Goldman Sachs JBWere turned out be an arduous task for the Fairfax journalists involved , with NBN Co sticking to the tried and tested ‘‘commercially sensitive’’ defence.

It’s a familiar tune, but is it valid? NBN Co was exempt from FOI rules until early 2011 until the Greens negotiated an amendment in February that year. Under the setup, work carried out by NBN Co on a commercial basis would be subject to FOI, but they would be exempted if the information sought was commercial in confidence. It’s a system that has worked well so far for the company.

However, as Dr Muller contends the breadth of the exemption does the public a disservice.

‘‘It prevents the public knowing how public money is being spent, which is something the public are genuinely entitled to know,’’ Dr Muller told Fairfax.

In April Attorney General Nicola Roxon appointed Stuart Morris, QC, to undertake a review of the application of FOI rules to NBN Co. This review was scheduled to be completed by June 30 and the report tabled in Parliament. We are in August now but so far not a peep from anyone. However, that might change if NBN Co’s keeps missing its rollout targets, at some point the company may need to subject itself to more oversight.

So is NBN Co using commercial exemptions is a way that goes against the interest of public, is it being too secretive by shooting down reasonable request?  Tell us what you think in our comments page.

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