TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Question time on Turnbull's NBN

The Coalition may be enjoying NBN Co's rollout troubles but it also needs to answer some important questions of its own.

The NBN Co has its hands full when it comes to the rollout and the latest headache has come courtesy of a report on iTNews, which suggests that almost 70,000 premises that have been promised fibre now face a long wait. According to the report, 69,500 fibre connections Australia-wide had been removed from the construction timetable and have been redistributed among 37 existing rollout areas and two new ones.

Without getting embroiled in the debate on whether the figures presented in the report are evidence of impropriety on the part of NBN Co, the one thing that’s clear is that NBN Co’s resources are stretched to maximum.

The Coalition is happy to project this as another illustration of an inept NBN Co board, accusing it of fudging the numbers, to make the rollout footprint seem larger than it really is, but the only figure of any consequence will be the number of premises passed and connected by the June 2013 deadline. Failing to meet this rollout target will be the final nail in the coffin for Labor’s NBN.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Coalition has a few questions of its own that it needs to answer. The shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull may be fond of extolling the virtues of a cost benefit analysis but the country and the fringe-metro electorate has a more pressing concern.

They need to know if the Coalition is committed to providing an affordable, universal fibre-to-the-premises network in the near or mid-term future. If so, when? And what time frame will they commit to? Is it going to be 10, 15 or 25 years?

What they won’t or shouldn’t accept is the steady catalogue of weasel words and generic answers from Turnbull. That old chestnut of 'the market will provide' must be seen for what it really means for the fate of an FTTP network – it will never be built.

We know that the telcos almost entirely replaced their internal and overseas networks with fibre optic during the '90s because it was faster, cheaper and higher quality, and could be upgraded in place. The operational expenditure is infinitesimal compared to previous technologies like wireless bearers, satellite and coax cable – all the technologies now being promoted as fit for the NBN.

The one thing the telcos never started was upgrading the customer access network from copper to fibre. In fact, it didn't even get into planning. The telcos have had over 20 years to show that 'the market will provide' and the answer is a definitive: it hasn't!

The NBN has been a political battlefield since the start and as both parties prepare to cross swords in September there is a real risk that the future competitiveness of our nation is put in jeopardy

Now, it’s true that the Australian electorate has a multitude of concerns as they head to the polls, however, it would be nave to discount the impact the NBN will have on their decision.

We know that the electorate has a long memory from the demise of the Australian Democrats in the Senate over the GST, and we know from 'Kevin '07' that people are concerned about the future of the nation. They can process complex issues and do not forget crucial policy points so easily.

Australia might not die in a ditch tomorrow if the NBN Co full-fibre rollout is halted or limited but the public is awake to the fact that the internet changes everything. As the geographical barriers crumble, local monopolies and duopolies are feeling the heat. Just have a look at our media and retail sectors as they scramble to cope with a rapidly shifting landscape.

Changes in the competitiveness of the whole Australian economy are of enough concern.

The Productivity Commission published a major report dedicated to explaining why since 2000 labour productivity grew or held, while total Productivity growth slumped from a high of 2.5 per cent a year in the '90s to zero or negative in the next decade. Their 2004 report, ICT Use and Productivity: A Synthesis from Studies of Australian Firms, is often referenced but so far very little has been made of its findings that information and communications technology use improves both labour and total productivity. There is also a strong assertion that ICT, including internet use, is the single most important factor driving productivity.

This corresponds with the peak in productivity in the '90s when PCs and internet connectivity were taken up by business. Back then Australia was amongst the global leaders in internet adoption and we are today seeing a new wave of adoption as ordinary people integrate all things internet into their lives and increasingly pick up smartphones and mobile devices.

This is a game changer for the country and fulfilling its potential will depend on affordable real high-speed internet; the kind that only fibre provides.

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